The Perplexing Disappearance of Varig flight 967
On the 30th of January 1979, Varig flight 967 departed Narita International Airport (Tokyo) for a cargo flight to Rio de Janeiro–Galeão International Airport in Brazil. Half an hour after departure, it disappeared. Not very much is known about what happened but when people ask me how it can possibly be that MH370 has never been found, I always think of Varig flight 967. It’s been forty years and we still don’t have a clue what happened.
The lack of information about Varig flight 967 makes it interesting and I had hoped to include it in the second volume of Without a Trace. Unfortunately I can’t write about everything and I couldn’t let this book go on forever. As is so often the case in these mysteries, I found a dozen different threads of interesting and unexpected information while doing my research. One reason I really enjoyed writing Without a Trace was having the space and the time to be able to follow these threads and see what I might found. As such, I’m thrilled to be able to share one of these stories with you online.
Varig (Viação Aérea RIo-Grandense or Rio Grandean Airways) was the first Brazilian airline, founded in 1927 by a German aviator who moved to Brazil in 1921. Their first aircraft, which was also the first aircraft registered in Brazil, was a Dornier Do J Wal flying boat named Atlântico.
The Do J had a high-mounted strut-braced parasol wing with two piston engines mounted in tandem in a central nacelle above the wing; one engine drove a tractor and the other drove a pusher propeller. In the military version (Militärwal in German), a crew of two to four rode in an open cockpit near the nose of the hull. There was one machine gun position in the bow in front of the cockpit and one or two amidships.
Varig did away with the machine gun and used it as a cargo and passenger aircraft; it could carry up to ten passengers. The airline expanded rapidly after World War II and became the leading airline of Brazil. In 1965, it became Brazil’s only international airline after taking over European services from Panair do Brasil.
The accident aircraft was a Boeing 707-323C built in 1966 and sold to American Airlines, who sold it to Varig in 1974. The Boeing 707 was a mid-sized, long-ranged, narrow body which was in production from 1958 to 1979, with a total of 865 aircraft produced. The 707 was Boeing’s first jet airliner with four Pratt & Whitney engines located in pods below the wing which almost all modern large jets use now as they offer many benefits, ranging from relief from wing bending to easy maintenance access to reduced noise in the passenger cabin. The Boeing 707 entered passenger travel with Pan American World Airways in 1958 and quickly came to dominate air transport, becoming known as the airliner which introduced jet travel. The 720, 727, 737 and 757 are all based on the 707’s fuselage design.
Today there are no more 707s in commercial airline service but, in its time, it was involved in 246 major aviation occurrences. This is the only one where the cause is unknown.
In the Boeing 707-323C registration PP-VLU, on the 30th of January 1979, there were six flight crew on board for a cargo flight. They were transporting paintings by the Japanese-Brazilian artist Manabu Mabe.
Manubu Mabe was born in Japan but he grew up in Brazil, as his parents and four siblings emigrated to a rural village in the interior when he was ten.
I remember the Brazilian nature unfolding before my eyes: fish swimming in the shallow waters of the lagoons and parrots fighting over a ripe guava.
He had the crayons from his Japanese elementary school and he drew the beautiful sights of Brazil as often as he could, which he said was really just on rainy days and on Sundays.
Ten years later, in 1945, the coffee harvest was ruined by unexpected frost and the young man found himself with unexpected time on his hands. He bought oil paints at a local bookstore and began painting landscapes on cardboard and wooden boards, any surface that he could find.
In 1957, once his siblings were independent, Mabe took a great leap. He sold the coffee plantation which he was now running with his wife and children, and the young family moved to São Paulo, where he hoped to make his living as an artist. He started by selling hand-painted ties from the street. “It was embarrassing and illegal,” he told Time magazine. “I had no peddler’s license, but they sold fast.” He used the money to buy oil and canvases, using the nights to paint.
Slowly but surely, he made his name and became an established artist in Brazil; he also took Brazilian nationality. His reputation started to grow and, in 1979, his paintings were exhibited in Tokyo for a special exhibition.
These paintings were part of the cargo in Varig flight 960. Estimated to be worth over a million US dollars, they were being shipped back home to Mabe in Brazil after the exhibition in Tokyo.
The cargo flight carrying the paintings had a flight route planned from Tokyo with stops in Los Angeles, California and in Lima, Peru on the way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
There were six flight crew on board for the long flight: the captain, the first officer, two second officers and two flight engineers.
The captain, Gilberto Araújo da Silva, was already considered a hero in France and Brazil, after he landed Varig flight 820 in onion fields south of Orly, avoiding crashing into the populated areas of Paris.
In 1973, a fire started in the toilet of Varig flight 820, with the probable cause of a cigarette. One hundred and twenty three people were killed, mostly of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.
The scheduled flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris-Orly was on approach for runway 26 when the flight crew contacted Orly to state they had a problem with fire on board and needed an emergency descent. The fire was at the rear of the plane and the cabin was filling with smoke. At 13:59 the flight was given clearance to descend to 3,000 feet for runway 07, to allow the aircraft to make a straight-in landing.
Meanwhile, smoke was entering the cockpit and the flight crew, who were wearing oxygen masks, were struggling to read the instruments. At 14:03, the captain attempted an emergency landing 5 kilometres short of the runway.
The aircraft landed on a field, where both main gears collapsed and the engines were torn off. By the time the firemen arrived, the fire had burned through the roof. Ten occupants evacuated through the roof and firemen rescued four unconscious occupants but only one survived. One hundred and twenty three were killed from the inhalation of the smoke, most of them dead before the plane even landed.
It was quite clear that the Boeing 707 would never have made it to the runway and the captain was applauded for having saved lives by not crashing into an inhabited area.
The fire had started in the washbasin unit of the aft right toilet. The FAA responded directly to this accident with the requirement to install warning placards and ashtrays in all aircraft.
It’s safe to say that the captain, at least, was experienced and knew how to deal with an emergency. At the time of the flight, he had logged over 23,000 hours.
Flight 967 to Rio de Janeiro departed Narita International Airport on time. Twenty minutes after take-off, the crew contacted Narita Tower for a routine check-in, reporting that they were 500 km from the coast (about 300 miles). The next call was expected about 40 minutes later but it never came. The tower controllers attempted to make contact for the next hour but received no response. They declared an emergency and the Japanese Air Force and Navy immediately set up a search. The following morning, the Japanese coast guard and the US Air Force joined the search.
Aircraft and ships scoured the area for the next eight days, trying to find any sign of the Boeing 707 but no wreckage or trace of the cargo and crew were ever found. At the time, the Brazilian media stated that it was the only commercial jet to have disappeared without leaving a single trace, with no distress message and no wreckage found.
This, of course, led to a number of theories, exactly as we have seen with Malaysian Airlines flight 370.
Many believed that the aircraft had been hijacked in order to steal the artwork. The cargo included over 50 of Mabe’s most valuable paintings, worth over a million dollars at the time. But none of these paintings has ever resurfaced.
Others believe that the aircraft had blundered into Soviet territory and was shot down, just as Korean Airlines 902 had been the year before.
Or it was possible that the flight was intercepted and forced to land in the Soviet Union, as some believed that a dismantled Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 was included in the cargo for delivery to Los Angeles.
Three years earlier, in 1976, a Soviet air force pilot named Viktor Belenko had defected in his MiG-25 to Hokkaido and offered asylum by US President Gerald Ford. The fighter jet had only become operational in 1970 and was the primary interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft of the Soviet Union. It seemed likely that the Soviet military would do most anything to keep their powerful fighter jet out of American hands.
Certainly, it is true that Belenko’s defection gave the US its first opportunity to learn about the aircraft; his defection was described by the director of the CIA (George H W Bush, who became president in 1989) as an “intelligence bonanza”. It’s a matter of public record that Belenko delivered the MiG-25 manual to US intelligence and later became a citizen of the United States. The Soviet Union initially claimed that the pilot had been captured by the Japanese, where he was injected with drugs to force him to talk. Once the pilot defected, the KGB spread the news that he had been killed in a car crash, presumably to dissuade others from following in his footsteps. Meanwhile, the pilot made a life for himself in Kansas where he said in an interview that he was particularly impressed with the supermarkets.
It has always been a hard task in Russia to find tasty tinned goods. But in the USA I bought different tinned foods every day, and they were all very good. Once I bought a tin where was written Dinner and fried its content with potatoes, onions and garlic – it was delicious. Next morning my friends told me that I had eaten tinned chicken for cats. But it was delicious!
Meanwhile, in 1976, the MiG-25 was a problem: Belenko had landed in a civilian airfield at Hakodate and there were not the resources to examine it there. But it was too large to transport in another Japanese aircraft and no one knew how to fly it. The fighter jet was dismantled and transported to a Japanese military base on a US Air Force Lockheed C-5A Galaxy. The Soviet government sent Japan a demand for $10 million for the damage to the plane; Japan retaliated with a charge of $40,000 for the damage to Hakodate Airport and shipping costs. Neither bill was ever paid.
The fighter jet was analysed at the military base, breaking the secrecy surrounding the MiG-25, and, according to Wikipedia, it was then packed into “around 40 boxes” and returned to the Soviet Union at the end of 1976, at which point the Soviets complained that around 20 pieces were missing. However, there’s no citation given for any of this information and I was unable to find a trusted historical source as to what happened to the MiG-25. Still, it doesn’t seem likely that the pieces ended up in the back of Varig flight 967 three years later.
I also found two references in the Brazilian press that some said that the aircraft had been abducted by aliens but actually, I found no evidence that anyone actually believed that to be the case.
The investigation at the time did not give credence to any of these theories, instead concluding that the flight suffered an unexpected depressurisation. The flight crew lost consciousness about 30 minutes after take off, with the Boeing continuing on the same altitude and heading until it ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that’s where the story ends, with no further leads and no reason to believe that we will ever find out what has happened to Varig flight 967.
The BEA’s investigation report, in French, has been scanned and uploaded to the BEA website: Rapport Final
If you want to know more about Victor Belenko’s theft of a MiG-25 and defection, I recommend BBC Future: The Pilot Who Stole a Secret Soviet Fighter Jet
The story of Varig flight 820 is from my own site: Why do aircraft still have ashtrays in the lavatory?
And finally, the story of Korean Air Lines flight 920 and the much more mysterious Korean Air Lines flight 007 are both covered in detail in Without a Trace: 1970-2016.
(PS: The book hasn’t actually received any reviews on Amazon at all and the page looks a bit lonely. If you have read it and enjoyed it, I’d love it if you could post a sentence or two on the Amazon.com page so that other people can judge whether it is something they might enjoy.)