Varig Flight 967 (lost flight recorders and Manabu Mabe paintings of disappeared cargo aircraft; 1979)
On 30th January 1979, cargo aircraft Varig Flight 967 was on-route from Narita International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport when all contact with the Boeing 707-323C suddenly ceased. The flight's fate remains unknown, but all six crew members are presumed dead. No remains of Flight 967, including its flight recorders and the 153 Manabu Mabe paintings it was carrying, have been recovered.
Varig Flight 967, consisting of a Boeing 707-323C, took off from Narita International Airport in Tokyo at around 20:23 pm JST. The plane's destination was Rio de Janeiro–Galeão International Airport, although it would initially need to conduct intermediate stops at Los Angeles International Airport, and later Peru's Jorge Chávez International Airport. Flight 967 was transporting 20 tons of various cargo, including 153 paintings by Japanese-Brazilian lyrical abstract Manabu Mabe, whose work was earlier showcased at a Tokyo exhibition, the collection valued at over $1.24 million and insured for about $10,000 each.
Its Brazilian crew was vastly experienced and consisted of flight captain Gilberto Araújo da Silva; first officer Erni Peixoto Mylius; second officers Antonio Brasileiro da Silva Neto and Evan Braga Saunders; and flight engineers Gusmão de Araújo and Nicola Exposito. Captain Araújo da Silva was the captain of Varig Flight 820, which on 11th July 1973 suffered an internal fire that claimed 123 lives. However, Araújo da Silva's decision to divert the plane from France's Orly Airport and crash land in onion fields south of the city reportedly prevented the flight from potentially crashing into densely populated areas of Paris. This saved ten crew members and a passenger and led him to be declared a hero in France and Brazil. Despite suffering numerous injuries, he recovered and began flying again in January 1974. For Flight 967, the crew would fly nonstop from Narita to Los Angeles. After that, the flight would be handed over to a new crew for the later stops.
At 20:45 pm, the crew reported to the Narita control tower that they were heading across the Pacific Ocean and were approximately 500 km from the Japanese coast. This was the first of several calls 967 was expected to make, with the next slated for 21:23 pm. What Narita's air traffic control did not realise, however, was that the 20:45 pm call would be the last radio communication from the flight. All further attempts to contact 967 failed and no radar signals were picked up. Search and rescue parties found no traces of the flight, and six months later all six crew members would be declared deceased with their family members compensated.
The absence of any 967 remains, including its flight recorders, made it impossible for air safety boards and Varig's internal reviewers to conduct a detailed crash investigation. However, in the years following the disappearance of Flight 967, several theories surrounding its fate have been conjured up. The most common explanation was that, between 20:45 to 21:23 pm, 967 suffered a sudden depressurisation, a theory proposed by crash investigators and agreed upon by one of Araújo da Silva's colleagues, Oswaldo Prophet. Had this occurred, the pilots would have gone unconscious within moments, leaving the plane trapped in autopilot before eventually running out of fuel and crashing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. As the Boeing would be considerably off-course, this may explain why its remains were never found. A similar theory was raised in the 31st January 1979 issue of Folha de S.Paulo, in that the plane exploded mid-flight.
Alternative theories allege foul play. One centres around the missing 153 Mabe paintings, with some theorists believing the plane was hijacked by individuals seeking to steal the valuable artworks. It is possible that hijackers could have boarded the plane, as Folha de S.Paulo reported the aircraft was delayed by nearly two hours for maintenance, giving any stowaways ample time to infiltrate 967. The main drawback with this hypothesis is that, in the 40+ years since the flight's disappearance, none of the 153 paintings have been sighted again, not even in black markets dealing with stolen art. Two other foul play theories are connected with the Soviet Union. The first assumes that the plane unintentionally entered Soviet airspace, where it was then shot down. However, as noted by the Brazilian Air Force, had the plane crashed in this fashion, wreckage and an accident site should have been present, but no traces were ever uncovered. Alternatively, the plane was either shot down or was forced to land at a Soviet airport for reasons connected to the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 was a Soviet supersonic interceptor deemed the most advanced within the communist country's air force. Thus, to gain an advantage in the Cold War, the United States endeavoured to gather intelligence regarding this aircraft. The US gained a strong opportunity to do so, when on 6th September 1976, Soviet Air Force pilot Viktor Belenko defected to the West, flying a MiG-25 to Hakodate Airport in Japan.
Not only did the US grant him political asylum, they were also eager to have the plane transferred over for analysis. There were considerable problems with this move; aside from Japan's concerns that this would generate further tensions between it and the Soviet Union, nobody from the West was able to understand how to fly it. Since the MiG-25 was too large for flight transportation, the decision was made to dismantle it and transfer the parts to a Japanese military base. Following a detailed examination, the remains were transferred back to Vladivostok. However, the Soviets discovered that around 20 parts were missing. This theory believes the parts, potentially of greater value for the US and its allies than the rest of the aircraft, were to be flown from Flight 967 to Los Angeles, causing the Soviet Union to intercept the plane after receiving word of the flight's motives. The theory also believes the crew were executed following the landing. However, this hypothesis fails to elaborate on why it took three years for the parts to finally be moved away from Japan. Both Soviet Union theories have also not been supported with evidence, with no leads arising from declassified Soviet government records. More outlandish theories include possible alien abduction.
None of the proposed theories can be officially proven or debunked. The 29th February 1980 issue of Folha de S.Paulo reported that Varig and authorities connected to the case were still unable to elaborate on what caused its disappearance, leaving to the mystery being forgotten. The main clues surrounding the flight's disappearance and the missing paintings would probably be revealed with 967's black box flight recorders. Particularly, the cockpit voice recorder would capture communication from the crew in addition to other sounds, while the flight data recorder would help assess the flight's overall conditions. They are designed to withstand even the biggest of impacts, and so are likely to have survived a possible crash. However, their whereabouts are just as unknown as the flight's other remains.
- 1998 Cavalese Cable Car Disaster (lost cockpit recording of aviation-related accident; 1998)
- Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (partially found contents of missing flight recorders from disappeared passenger aircraft; 2014)
- Malév Flight 240 (lost flight recorders and crash investigation reports of fatal passenger aircraft crash; 1975)
- Pan Am Flight 708 (lost flight recorders of fatal cargo aircraft crash; 1966)
- Aviation Safety Network summarising the flight and its disappearance. Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- Gilberto Araujo da Silva blog detailed the life and career of captain Araújo da Silva, Varig Flight 820, and detailing the disappearance of and theories surrounding Flight 967 (article in Portuguese). Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- Fear of Landing detailing the main theories surrounding 967's fate, and its possible connection to the MiG-25. Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- UOL summarising the flight's disappearance, and noting the cargo and explosion theory raised in the 31st January 1979 issue of Folha de S.Paulo (article in Portuguese). Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- Simple Flying summarising the main conspiracy theories regarding the plane's fate. Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- You Can't Handle the Conspiracy Truth summarising the foul play Soviet Union theories, and noting no tangible evidence supports them. Retrieved 8th Jan '23
- NTSB defining the cockpit voice and flight data recorders. Retrieved 8th Jan '23