Zia Plane Crash Was Sabotage, Pakistanis Say

Times Staff Writer

A “highly sophisticated form of sabotage” that may have included the gassing of the flight crew through the use of low-intensity plastic explosives was responsible for the Aug. 17 air crash that killed President Zia ul-Haq, 10 of his top army generals and U.S. Ambassador Arnold L. Raphel, Pakistan reported Sunday.

The report of the government’s official investigation into the crash ruled out a missile, a bomb or any kind of attack from the ground as possible causes of the crash of the Pakistani air force C-130 that served as the presidential plane. Also ruled out were mechanical failure and pilot error.

The four-member Pakistani Military Inquiry Board that supervised the investigation said in a 28-page summary report: “The board feels that a chemical agent may well have been used to cause incapacitation of the flight deck crew. The chemical agent could have been packed in innocuous containers such as beverage tins, gift parcels, aerosol cans, thermos flasks, etc. and smuggled on board without raising suspicion.”

The report said that the bodies of the pilot, co-pilot and other key members of the flight crew virtually disintegrated on impact and could not be autopsied, adding: “The lack of evidence in this area of investigation must be recognized as a serious drawback to (reaching) a definite conclusion.”


It also said that the absence of an on-board flight recorder hampered the investigators’ work.

‘It Was Sabotage’

In making public the report, Defense Secretary Ijlal Heider Zaidi declared flatly that “it was sabotage,” adding that “it must have been a highly sophisticated form of sabotage.”

The government stopped short of accusing a specific country or agency for an act that killed the long-serving military ruler of this country, which is America’s closest ally in South Asia.


Zaidi and the air force officer who headed the investigation stressed at a press conference that Sunday’s report covered “only the (results of the) technical inquiry,” adding that a “covert and discreet” investigation by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies is continuing.

American Assistance

The American government and Lockheed Corp., the C-130’s manufacturer, provided extensive assistance to the investigating panel. In addition to a six-member U.S. Air Force advisory team especially trained in probing air disasters, 13 independent American experts in forensic medicine, flame patterns, aircraft structures and explosives traveled to the crash site in a remote desert southeast of Islamabad to assist in the probe.

More than 40 key pieces of the destroyed aircraft--ranging from engines, pumps, filters and fluid samples to the seeds and peels of mangoes that were carried on board--were culled from the wreckage and sent to U.S. and Pakistani laboratories for chemical and particle analyses.

All known circumstances of the C-130’s brief, five-minute flight were fed into flight simulation computers at Lockheed’s headquarters, and scores of possible scenarios were run through, the report indicated.

Report Runs 350 Pages

Air Commodore Abbas Mirza, the chief investigator, called the investigation “extremely detailed and thorough.” The full report is 350 pages long.

Re-creating the actual crash, the investigation found that Zia and his party, which also included Brig. Gen. Herbert M. Wassom, the U.S. defense sales representative in Pakistan, took off from Bahawalpur Airport at 3:46 p.m. on Aug. 17.


The weather was perfect. The flight crew was in superb condition, the aircraft and its flight systems were flawless and the pilot reported nothing unusual to the control tower, the report said.

Moments after a smooth takeoff and climb, the report said, “numerous witnesses” saw the C-130, one of the world’s most stable aircraft, pitching up and down.

‘Near Vertical Dive’

“The pitching continued to worsen, according to witnesses, until a steep dive, steep climb, and near vertical dive resulted in the aircraft impacting the ground at approximately 3:51 p.m.,” according to the report.

“Shortly before impact, the pilot of the C-130 said, ‘Stand by, stand by,’ and that was the last known transmission from this aircraft,” Mirza told reporters.

The report indicated that, in reaching its conclusion of sabotage, the inquiry board used an exhaustive process of elimination, employing tests and chemical analyses to rule out pilot error, crew fatigue, maintenance flaws, fuel contamination, weather, in-flight fire or explosion or structural and mechanical failures in every significant part of the aircraft.

Low-Level Explosion

The report indicated that the inquiry board’s likeliest theory was that a low-level explosion may have been used by saboteurs on board to fire gas canisters into the cockpit, immobilizing the flight crew and throwing the aircraft out of control.


Chemical analyses made by U.S. experts showed traces of a sophisticated plastic explosive in the cockpit and at the aircraft’s rear door. There were also traces of chemicals that are often used in detonators found on the seeds and peels of mangoes that were given to Zia and his party as traditional gifts before they left Bahawalpur, tending to support initial reports that an explosive device could have been smuggled on board in mango crates by a member of the flight crew.

The report pointed no fingers at any of the personnel aboard, but in recent interviews, intelligence sources told The Times that suspicion has focused on a Pakistani flight lieutenant who may have been on a suicide mission.

Convert to Shiaism

The lieutenant had recently converted to Shiaism, a fundamentalist Islamic sect. Most Pakistanis are members of the more moderate Sunni branch of Islam. Zia was increasingly criticized by Shia leaders in the months before his death, and Pakistani Shias had publicly blamed Zia for the death of Pakistan’s most prominent Shia leader, who was slain two weeks before the air crash.

Pakistani intelligence sources said that the flight lieutenant was added to the flight manifest at the last minute and that he had had an unstable personal life.

As to who might be responsible, the inquiry report said: “The use of ultra-sophisticated techniques would necessitate the involvement of a specialist organization well-versed in carrying out such tasks and possessing all the means and abilities for its execution.”