Lauda Air Crash 1991: still too many open questions

Hier klicken für die deutsche Version / Please click here for the German version of this story

With 223 fatalities, the crash of "Mozart" on May 26th 1991 is until now Austria’s most fatal catastrophe in its aviation history. Now, 24 years later, there is a TV documentary on this crash available, although due to the lack of research it shouldn’t be called this way.

Usually, the Canadian series "Mayday", also known as "Air Crash Investigation", is known to reconstruct the causes and findings of every covered crash in detail.

Unfortunately the makers of the "Mozart"-crash failed to do so. In the meanwhile on National Geographic and YouTube aired episode the history of Lauda NG004 is described as follows: the Boeing 767-300ER took off from Bangkok with its destination Vienna and crashed after its initial climb due to a deployed thrust reverser. Those are facts correctly covered in the documentary. However Niki Lauda, the airline owner, is shown as driving force behind the investigation and explanation of this tragedy. Laudas self-display is shown unchallenged, and backed up by his own biographer, Herbert Volker.

This episode of "Mayday" tries to imply that at Lauda Air everything was just fine, and that due to Niki Laudas tenacity the mysteries behind the tragedy could be resolved. He, Lauda, allegedly did everything to guarantee transparency. To many insiders and some relatives of the 223 dead this might seem like a slap in the face.

Investigators point out maintenance shortcomings at Lauda Air

Even though legally the charges against Niki Lauda and his (actually not very successful – see the links below) airline were dropped, this does whitewash the former Formula-1 World Champion.

After all, even the official report published by the Thai aviation authorities reads that the cause for the deployed thrust reverser could not be determined. It was noted by the investigators that maintenance work performed at Lauda Air was not always in accordance with the regulations of the manufacturer Boeing.

Obviously, in the months leading up to the crash, there was always the same error message in the computers of "Mozart", without anyone of Lauda Airs technicians informing Boeing about this – even though there was a Boeing representative stationed at Vienna Airport.

Severe accusations in a report locked up for 24 years

And as if this wouldn’t be enough, in 1994 the Austrian expert Prof. DDipl-Ing. Dr. Ernst Zeibig published an explicit report, stating that "urgently needed documentation was handed over by Lauda Air only after the help of court, with the threats of executing a search warrant".

But also with the official Thai investigation, important files were left unattended at Lauda Air for ten days, until they could be confiscated. The German aviation journalist Tim van Beveren qouted Johann Rausch, former president of the civil aviation authority (Bundesamt für Zivilluftfahrt): "It is international standard that documents are immediately recovered and secured. The fact that it took then days in this case is left uncommented from my side." Guenther Raicher, head of the air crash investigation authorities told the Austrian weekly newspaper "profil" (issue 48/1992, page 24): "I had the intention of getting the papers, but hadn’t had any legal right to do so. We were told at Lauda Air that they are only obliged to (and would) hand over documentation to the international commission."

Does this look like Niki Lauda undertaking everything to shed a light on the causes of the crash of "Mozart"? This question might just pop up to some of the readers.

According to van Beveren, the official Thai commission examined the logs of "Mozart" only just for 8 hours, four on the 19th of June 1991 and again four hours on 23rd of June, while Austrian investigators occupied themselves over a year with this matter.

Missing documentation, a not airworthy aircraft according to an expert, and 61 error messages until the crash

Finally there were 25 missing pages of the "Mozart"-techlog of the from 27th of May until 8th of June 1990 and files from the documentations of the c-checks. Van Beveren writes that relevant files were "obviously removed on May 31st 1991, after the crash".

The remains of the "Mozart" at the crash site in 1991 - Photo: Screenshot YouTube
The remains of the "Mozart" at the crash site in 1991 - photo: Screenshot YouTube

The evaluation of the undamaged EEC-memory (some type of computer on which errors could be retrieved, like in modern cars) showed that between 27th of April and 26th of May altogether 61 error messages concerning the thrust reverser were generated.

Experts accuse: Lauda Air, for example, has in this context just deleted those error messages without thorough documentation in the technical log, not traced the source of the error, not completed troubleshooting, measuring, even though off limits was certified ok, and even unnecessary maintenance was undertaken that was not demanded by Boeing.

The Austrian investigator Zeibig however concluded, that "Mozart", as it took off from Bangkok to Vienna on 26th of May 1991, should never have been flying at all.

One may ask the question how these accusations get along with the held-high reputation of Mr. Lauda. For journalists and the Canadian makers of "Mayday" this question should be obligatory with a serious understanding of journalistic work. But "Mayday" does not even bring up one of these points, nor is it mentioned that such a report exists.

It also remains concealed that Austria’s authorities keep this report locked up since more than 20 years. Investigator rejected requests by our editorial team for a copy of the report. It was said that authorities have ruled so. Therefore it seems fair to ask if these very authorities are trying to cover something up? And: if the accusations in the report do not add up or are simply wrong, why did Lauda Air never fight against it in court?

Finally, there were some discrepancies with pilots' licenses within Lauda Air. Needless to say that any clue on this is missing within the documentation – as well as the criticism of the relatives that Lauda Air has never taken care of them after the crash.

Over all, this episode of "Mayday" must be rated "fail", considering its undertaken amount of research. The dead and their relatives would have deserved more respect and journalistic diligence! It is a shame this chance was not taken.

To all the readers, who want to get the bigger picture behind the dull TV-"infotainment", we suggest our report “Der Todesflug der Mozart” (only available in German), which is respectfully dedicated to the relatives of those lost in this tragedy. May their souls rest in peace!

Text: E. Szeles
Photo: The crahsed Lauda Air Boeing 767-300ER OE-LVA "Mozart" - Credit: Werner Fischdick