A melting glacier at Europe’s Mont Blanc mountain range recently disentombed Indian newspapers buried there for 54 years –- some of them carrying headlines such as “India’s First Woman Prime Minister”, referring to Indira Gandhi’s election win in 1966.
The newspapers are among the remains of Air India Flight 101, a Boeing 707 plane that on January 24, 1966, crashed into Mont Blanc ending the lives of all 177 passengers and crew. Among the 177 dead was Homi Bhabha, the founding leader of India’s nuclear programme.
Flight 101 is not the only Indian plane that met its end at Mont Blanc, Europe’s third-highest peak. Sixteen years before that, Air India Flight 245 had crashed at the same spot in November 1950, killing all 48 on board.
While the debris from the two catastrophes remained buried for decades in the high mountains, recent Alpine melting is causing the remains to surface; with many discoveries coming to the fore in the past decade.
The ill-fated Air India flights
The first, Air India Flight 245 – also called the ‘Malabar Princess’ – was on a Bombay-Istanbul-Geneva-London route. On the morning of November 3, 1950, the Constellation aircraft, piloted by Alan Saint and YV Korgaokar, hit Mont Blanc’s Rocher de la Tournette point at 15,344 feet. All 48 on board, including passengers and crew, died.
The crash inspired a French novel called ‘La neige en deuil’, based on which the 1956 Hollywood film ‘The Mountain’ was made. Another film, the French language ‘Malabar Princess’, was made in 2004.
Sixteen years after the first crash, Air India Flight 101, named ‘Kanchenjunga’ after the Himalayan peak, also met its end only 200 metres away from the previous crash site.
The flight, a Boeing 707, was flying from Bombay to London, with stops at Delhi, Beirut, and Geneva. On the morning of January 24, 1966, while flying from Beirut to Geneva, a miscommunication between Captain JT D’Souza and Geneva Air Traffic Control caused the plane to crash into Mont Blanc. This led to the loss of all 177 on board, including the top scientist Bhabha.
After both the 1950 and 1966 crashes, severe weather conditions prevented immediate rescue efforts.
Discoveries at Mont Blanc
The Mont Blanc area, which has lost a quarter of its glacial ice due to climate change, has in recent years exposed remains of frozen hikers missing for decades. Since 2012, many finds related to both the Air India crashes have emerged from the melting ice caps.
In 2012, a bag of diplomatic mail, stamped ‘On Indian Government Service, Diplomatic Mail, Ministry of External Affairs’, was recovered, while a year later, a French climber found a metal box containing the Air India logo containing emeralds, sapphires and rubies worth between GBP 117,000 and GBP 230,000.
In 2017, some human remains believed to be from the two flights were discovered.
Homi Bhabha’s death
Conspiracy theories have called Bhabha’s death – who barely two years before the crash had publicly claimed that India could develop its own nuclear device in less than 18 months – a plot against the country.
According to a report in The Diplomat, the second Air India crash led to a French inquiry commission report in 1967, whose conclusions were accepted by India’s Civil Aviation Department. The flight’s black box was never recovered.
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As per the report, the flight was carrying classified documents containing Indian assessments of Chinese defences and nuclear weapons. The “Top Secret” documents were discovered in 2016 from the melting Bosse glacier near Mont Blanc, it says.
After the accident, another legendary scientist, Vikram Sarabhai, succeeded Bhabha at the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. Subsequently, India tested its first nuclear bomb at Pokhran in 1974.
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