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Lost Cargo Door Brings Down DC-10 in Paris

By Patrick Mondout

On March 3, 1974, a Turkish Airways (THY) DC-10 on a regularly scheduled flight from Orly Airport in Paris to London's Heathrow lost a cargo door and crashed killing all 346 aboard. To this point in aviation history, this was the worst accident of all time.

A strike by British European Airways (BEA) ground engineers left many Brits stranded at Orly and elsewhere in Europe and most were willing to take any flight they could get back to England. THY was only able to sell 167 of the 345 seats before the strike. They were able to nearly fill the plane by noon.

The DC-10, operating as Flight 981, took off under the command of THY Captain Mejat Berkoz about half past noon. The aircraft climbed to 13,000 feet before the cargo door gave way. When it did, the rapid decompression ripped away parts of the aircraft around the door. This damaged hydraulic lines used to control the aircraft. Although the pilots attempted to fly the aircraft and had some control for a short time, it was only a matter of time before it crashed. It was later determined that the cargo door was not properly locked before takeoff. 


A Sabena Airlines DC-10 under construction in Long Beach with a modified cargo door open.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at


The cash-strapped McDonnell Douglas blamed an "illiterate" baggage handler at Orly for failing to close the door properly. While it was true that Algerian-born Mahmoud Mahamoudi spoke no English (the language of instructions printed on this DC-10), it was not his fault that MD had made a faulty cargo door locking mechanism which should have been fixed.

In fact, this was a repeat of an accident which happened on June 12, 1972 to an American Airlines flight. The damage was not quite as severe (one body exited the aircraft, though it was in a coffin near the cargo door) and the plane landed safely. The following is from the National Transportation Safety Board accident report for the American Airlines flight:

"[The NTSB] determines that the probable cause of this accident was the improper engagement of the latching mechanism for the aft bulk cargo compartment door during the preparation of the airplane for flight. The design characteristics of the door latching mechanism permitted the door to be apparently closed when, in fact, the latches were not fully engaged, and the latch lockpins were not in place."

The NTSB investigates accidents and makes recommendations to the FAA to prevent such accidents from occurring in the future, but the NTSB cannot force an airline or aircraft manufacturer to do anything - only the FAA can. It is a widely held - if cynical - belief that the NTSB exists to keep passengers safe and the FAA exists to keep the NTSB off the back of the airlines and aircraft manufacturers by taking NTSB demands and turning them into mere recommendations.

Though the seriousness of the design deficiency should have warranted grounding all DC-10s until the changes were made (such a grounding would happen in 1979 after the horrible American Airlines crash in Chicago), Jackson McGowen, then president of the Douglas division of McDonnell Douglas and worried about the effect it would have on marketing his new plane, was able to make a gentleman's agreement with J.H. Shaffer of the FAA to not issue an AD (Airworthiness Directive). Such an AD might have grounded all DC-10s and would have required changes to be made.

The NTSB asked the FAA to require changes to prevent a reoccurrence. The FAA's J.H Shaffer declined the recommendations with a bit of spin in a letter dated July 7, 1972 to NTSB Chairman John Reed,

"All operators of DC-10-10 airplanes are currently performing 100 hour functional checks on the cargo door system and will incorporate necessary modifications in accordance with McDonnell Douglas Service Bulletins 52-27 and A52-35 within 300 hours. These modifications pertain to improvements in the inspection and operation of locking and vent mechanisms."

This did not require that the changes be made. However, in June of 1972, three inspectors at the McDonnell Douglas facility in Long Beach certified that the Turkish DC-10 had been modified in accordance with MD's own recommendations prior to its December 1972 delivery. It had not - resulting in the deaths of 346 passengers and crew.

McDonnell Douglas was not able to play ball with the FAA this time and an Airworthiness Directive mandating a closed loop system on all DC-10 cargo doors was issued.

The DC-10 was starting to get a reputation it would never quite outrun as a dangerous aircraft.

Note: A photograph of the THY DC-10 in happier times is here.


Türk Hava Yollari (THY) 981 at a Glance
AirlineTürk Hava Yollari (THY)
DateMarch 3, 1974
Flight number981
Registration NumberTC-JAV
Crew Fatalities11 of 11
Passenger Fatalities335 of 335
Total Fatalities346 of 346

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about this crash? Were you a witness? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"This accident led to a real problem with the credibility of the DC 10, and around that time the saying, "If it ain't Boeing, I ain't going" became well known."


"Some weeks after this THY had a #2 engine fail out of LHR. They came to Laker Airways at LGW for the engine change. I was a fitter at the time. We changed the engine for them as we had a GE lease pool engine on site at the time. They sent their own team over, however we had the job done before they turned up. The engine failed because the combustor cracked [known problem at the time] up. Still working DC10's today but now licenced for the last 20+ years. Good a/c on the whole."


"Having been an aviation and airline Manager for many years I have followed these disasters quite rigorously. I have a copy of Moira Johnston's The Last Nine Minutes and this details the entire episode of THY flt # 981. I lived the days when the latch over spools were a spill over to the L1011 and lights were common failures in confirmation. The inability of the manufacturer to sense the requirements for pivotal pressurization in larger aircraft and develop alternative venting systems beyond the 3.1 psi floor strength seemed to stagnate the industry, but then again who knew that the doubling of the size of aircraft hulls would result in cubed ratio of pressure and any cummulative effects ie door mechanisms, would provide that explosive charge that would disrupt cable mechanisms and severe the pilots control of the aircraft. The famous axiom is "would it work in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan" in other words, placards in english and 1" diameter viewing ports in a blinding snow storm at sub zero temps do not invoke the confidence that passengers would require from a baggage handler or mechanic on the run. It is time to error proof these systems people and make them kaizen or error proof."


"My father was killed in the Turkish Airlines crash in France. In 1974 I was 10 years old and my American family was living just outside of Paris where my father was working. I vividly remember rushing to the train station in Triel-sur-Seine early on Sunday morning, March 3, so that my father could make his flight to London. He said a quick goodbye and that was the last time I ever saw my father again.

My father was on his way to London on British Airways to catch a flight to Africa for business. Because of a British Airlines strike, he got a last minute flight on Turkish Airlines. On Monday, March 4, I stayed home from school because I was sick and I clearly remember reading the front page of the Herald Tribune giving details of the crash, not realizing at the time that my father was on board. By Monday afternoon, by father's secretary called my mother several times asking if she had heard from my father, as he usually called when he arrived at his destination.

My mother spoke little French so it was very difficult for her to get any information. I remember her sitting by the phone and crying in frustration because my father had not called from Africa and she could not get any details from the airline because they didn't have a complete passenger manifest. Given the headline in the paper, she was fearing the worst but couldn't get confirmation.

A couple of days later it was evident that my father was missing and likely on the ill-fated DC-10. A week after the accident, we went to the crash site in the forest north of Charles-de-Gaulle airport. The trees were cleared out for 1000 yards where the plan had come down. There were still small part of the plane scattered everywhere. I remember looking up into the standing trees and seeing people's clothes and parts of people belongings. My brother and I went through piles of people belongings that had been recovered from the site in hopes of finding someting that belonged to my father. We later identified a bent and damaged ring that he was wearing. We also found his melted briefcase handle with his initials visible.

Most of the victims bodies/parts were placed in a mass grave in Paris. Fortunately my father's body was identified by dental records and he was buried back in the United States.

In 2001, I was in Paris on business and I had a free afternoon. I took the train to Ermonville and then found a taxi driver who helped me find the crash site in the forest. I could still see the impact area of the plane because of the small trees in the area. Today there is a granite memorial with the names of the victims engraved. There are still small pieces of the plane throughout the crash site. Many of the visitors have taken pieces and placed them at the base of the monument, along with several human bones that were also found in the area.

It is a very beautiful and peaceful place but 30 years ago the events that took place there and the people that were lost had a lasting impact on hundreds of lives, including my family."

--Michael Chard (son of Gary Chard)

" I wasn't in the world when that tragic accident happened. However I can guess the terrifying dimensions of this incident. I learned that my uncle's closer classmate had lost her life in DC-10 disaster while she had been flying to London for studying English literature. And during the rescue workings, her squared, red trouser had been found and given to her depressed parents. And as a Turkish citizen, I want to give a short information. In the Ermenonville disaster, 47 Turkish passengers were killed. The name of the passenger that I have mentioned above was Gunselı Yoruker."




Airline: Türk Hava Yollari (THY)

Location: Near Orly Airport, France

Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas DC-10

Date: March 3, 1974

Total Fatalities: 346 of 346

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