Wreckage Preserved By A Glacier: The Story Of Air India Flight 101


Air India flight 101 was a scheduled service between Mumbai (then Bombay) and London. On 24th January 1966, the Boeing 707 crashed into the Mont Blanc range in France, killing all onboard. However, with search attempts hampered by the terrain, parts of the wreckage remain preserved today and have found their way to explorers decades later.

Wreckage Preserved By A Glacier: The Story Of Air India Flight 101
It wasn’t the first time an aircraft had crashed into the Mont Blanc range, and not even the first Air India plane. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

Position

AI101 was scheduled to fly from Bombay to London on 24th January 1966, making three stops along the way. The flight safely flew to Delhi and Beirut on its way to Europe, with no mechanical difficulties with the aircraft.

However, troubles began when the aircraft was on approach to Geneva, its final stop. Air Traffic Control informed the captain to begin his descent into the airport once he cleared the Mont Blanc massif (range). However, the pilot believed that he had already cleared the massif and began descending.

This caused the aircraft to crash into the Rocher de la Tournette ridge of the mountain, killing all 117 (11 crew and 106 passengers) onboard. The crash speed meant that the plane broke into small pieces, complicating rescue efforts further.

Wreckage Preserved By A Glacier: The Story Of Air India Flight 101
When Air India received its first Boeing 707 in 1960, the aircraft had already established itself as a trusted jetliner. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

The Boeing 707, registered VT-DMN and named “Kanchenjunga” (the third highest peak in the world), had been delivered less than five years before the crash, in May 1961.

Which Air India aircraft?

The task of recovering remains, aircraft parts, and other cargo at over 15,000 feet was not an easy one. Bad weather at the summit meant that rescue attempts had to be called off repeatedly, and the wreckage of the 707 remains at La Tournette even today. However, it is not the only one.

15 years before, another Air India flight to London Heathrow crashed into almost the exact same spot. AI245 was a charter service carrying 48 from Bombay in November 1950 using a Lockheed Constellation. VT-CQP, the Malabar Princess, crashed on approach to Geneva and only a few items were ever recovered.

Wreckage Preserved By A Glacier: The Story Of Air India Flight 101
The Air India Lockheed Constellation’s remains are also located in the heights of the French Alps today. Photo: Mila Daniel via Wikimedia Commons

The proximity of the crashes means parts of the two planes have been found in the following decades. While several mail discoveries were made from AI245, there were a few unique packages onboard AI101.

Lost and found

46 years after the crash, a mountain worker found a diplomatic mailbag stamped “On Indian Government Service, Diplomatic Mail, Ministry of External Affairs.” The bag contained unclassified materials like newspapers and letters, including legible copies of the Hindustan Times and other papers.

Air India 101 Newspapers
Even today, remnants of the crash pop up during explorations, including this image of a cafe owner with papers from 1966. Photo: Getty Images

The most notable find has been a bag of gems discovered in 2013, which includes €246,000 ($278,000) worth of emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. These 100 precious gems became a huge story as French authorities searched for the original owners and recipients. Since then, the final recipient remains unknown and the gems have been split 50-50 between the climber and the government of Chamonix.



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