After 31 Years Black Boxes from the Eastern Airlines Crash in the Andes Have Been Found!

One of the great aviation mysteries is what happened to Eastern Airlines flight 980, which crashed into the mountains near La Paz, Bolivia in 1985. On-site investigations didn’t commence for months after the crash and the airframe wasn’t discovered for 25 years. The cause of the demise of the Boeing 727 was never positively confirmed.

On New Year’s Day 1985, Eastern 980 — a flight from Asunción to Miami via La Paz and Guayaquil — departed from Asunción at 5:57 pm with 19 passengers (including the wife of the US Ambassador to Paraguay and 2 pilots) and 10 crew.

At 7:37pm the plane’s pilots told controllers at their first stop in La Paz that they were 10 minutes from landing. They were cleared to descend to 18,000 feet.

The plane veered significantly during its descent and struck Mount Illimani at 19,600 feet killing all souls aboard. The crash is notable as the highest controlled flight into terrain commercial aircraft accident ever. The Eastern flight was 25 miles from the airport.

The plane’s black boxes were never found — until this past week when adventurers Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner discovered pieces.

The site is difficult to access. The investigation didn’t commence for several months. By that time winter had come and passed, with the wreckage was spread out and under 20 to 30 feet of snow.

After 31 years, pieces of the cockpit voice and data recorders were finally recovered. Two guys set off on an adventure seeking the black boxes. And two days ago these two guys posted their success at the end of their third day of searching.

After we’d given up for the evening, Isaac did something he’d done hundreds of times over the previous three days, turning over pieces of metal to check their color.

Only this piece he turned over was orange, just like the previous five pieces, and it had cables sticking out of it. On a plastic wrapping around the cables was the writing “CKPT VO RCDR”.

Sweet confirmation…We’d accidentally done the thing we tried to do.

We do not yet know whether any usable information will be recoverable and so whether or not we’ll have any information that can confirm speculation about what happened to Eastern Airlines flight 980 — whether the pilots had bad information about the terrain and were unable to pull up in time when they came upon the mountain, whether they tried to avoid bad weather, or if it was something else entirely that led to the tragedy.

The whole blog of the adventure is worth scanning.

(HT: Free in Freedom)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “happened to Eastern Airlines flight 900, which crashed into the mountains near La Paz, Bolivia in 1981. ”

    “On New Year’s Day 1985, Eastern 980”

    So, according to this article, the plane crashed 4 years prior to taking off and had two different flight numbers. DOH!

  2. Just read the blog– an amazing story! Thanks to the team for doing this amazing task and congrats on finding the boxes. Gary, thanks for sharing with your readers!

  3. Wow, pretty surprising news. But hey, I thought the “black boxes” were indestructible… why was it in pieces? Have I watched too many TV shows?

  4. Nice summary of the find, Gary, but one note of correction. The investigation into the crash did begin immediately afterwards, several investigators from the NTSB and the FAA flew to La Paz and conducted interviews and surveys at the airfield. I have interviewed some of these men for my book, The Crash Detectives, which will be published by Penguin in September.

    amazon.com/The-Crash-Detectives-Investigating-Mysterious-ebook/dp/B01BD1SSBM

    Nevertheless, a thorough review of the information obtained there, and afterwards by parties to the investigation, was never done by U.S. officials and as a consequence this accident remains as much a mystery as Malaysia 370.

    As I wrote in my book, independent analysts and arm chair investigators are contributing in ways previously not possible for example, George Jehn’s book, Final Destination Disaster highlights a number of intriguing reasons why the Boeing 727 might have flown into Mt. Illimani.

    For those still awaiting answers to the crash of Eastern Flight 980, the news from La Paz is very good indeed.

  5. The searchers did not find the flight data and cockpit voice recorders. They found some orange-painted metal and a piece of recording tape. The metal may be related to the recorders, but is not the recorders. The tape may have nothing to do with the recorders. Anyone can bumble around a crash site and find pieces of aircraft, that’s why it’s called a crash site or related litter field.

  6. Pictures of the wreckage prove this was an inflight break up, the front of the engines, the N1 compressor section, are not deformed, the pieces of the cockpit dash board are intact, the clothes of the deceased are intact. If the plane had impacted the mountain at 600mph these articles would all be in a much different condition. Probably a sabatouge attempt to kill ambassador Davies who had just confronted the president of bolivia with charges of complicity of drug smuggling. Read George Jehns book “Destination Disaster”. This expedition has raised alot of questions, regardless of the recovery of the CVR and FDR. A check for explosive residue and a teardown of the remaining engine would shed further light.

  7. This is good news for me and my family. The flight engineer on board flight 980 was my 1st cousin whom I’d grown up with. I plan to follow this thread.

  8. I’ve worked on commercial aircraft for 35 years as a mechanic and inspector for Boeing, Rockwell, and Lockheed. Judging by the picture of the orange metal, it’s shape, and detail, that’s a black box. Very specific in color, little if anything else at all, is painted in that specific color on aircraft. The tape, is also specific in size and configuration. Notably specific, unlike other types of recording tapes. Air breakup? Judging by one picture of one engine is spectacularly uninformed and speculative.
    Crash investigations with all parts of an aircraft available, both recorders intact, eye witness account, survivors, and tower personnel are highly complex and time consuming affairs.

  9. I’m curious – what type of storage method was used to record flight data and cockpit voice messages in 1985? Does anyone know this? Thanks!

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