May 1991 – 25 Years Ago

26 May 1991: Thailand’s Deadliest Aviation Accident

May 1991 - Niki Lauda
Niki Lauda

Lauda Air Flight 004 was an international passenger flight operated by a Boeing 767-300ER that crashed on 26 May 1991 due to an uncommanded thrust reverser deployment of the No.1 engine in mid-flight. All 223 people onboard were killed.

Lauda Air was founded and run by the former Formula One world motor racing champion Niki Lauda. Lauda personally got involved in the subsequent investigation.

In command of the flight on 26 May 1991 was American, Captain Thomas J. Welch and First Officer Josef Thurner from Austria. At 23:08, Welch and Thurner received a visual warning indicating that a possible system failure would cause the thrust reverser on the number one engine to deploy in flight. Having consulted the aircraft’s quick reference handbook, they determined that it was “just an advisory thing” and took no action. Nine minutes later the thrust reverser on the number one engine deployed while the plane was over mountainous jungle terrain in the border area between Suphanburi and Uthai Thani provinces in Thailand. Thurner’s last recorded words were, “Oh, reverser’s deployed.”

The incident placed the plane in an immediate diving left turn at more than 1,200 kilometres an hour over mountainous jungle terrain. The aircraft broke up at about 1,200 metres, the wreckage scattered over a square kilometre of remote jungle. 27 of the bodies were never identified.

May 1991: Operation Solomon

May 1991: C130 Hercules
Lockheed C130 Hercules

In 1991, the sitting Ethiopian government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was close to being toppled with the military successes of Eritrean and Tigrean rebels, threatening Ethiopia with dangerous political destabilization. World Jewish organizations and Israel were concerned about the well-being of the Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, residing in Ethiopia.

A planned covert Israeli military operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel was already in place. Non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft, including Israeli Air Force C-130s and El Al Boeing 747s, were to transport 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. The operation was kept secret by military censorship. In order to accommodate as many people as possible, airplanes were stripped of their seats.

May 1991 - Operation Solomon
Ethiopian Jews arriving in Israel

With the help of the American government including a letter from President H W Bush, the acting president of Ethiopia Ethiopia Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan made the ultimate decision to allow the airlift. The Ethiopians initially demanded weapons in exchange.

As many as 1,122 passengers were boarded on a single plane. Many of the immigrants came with nothing except their clothes and cooking instruments, and were met by ambulances, with 140 frail passengers receiving medical care on the tarmac

Operation Solomon set a world record for single-flight passenger load on May 24, 1991, when an El Al 747 carried 1,122 passengers to Israel (1,087 passengers were registered, but dozens of children hid in their mothers’ robes). Planners expected to fill the aircraft with 760 passengers. Because the passengers were so light, many more were squeezed in. Five babies were born aboard the planes.

The negotiations surrounding the operation led to the eventual London roundtable discussions, which established a joint declaration by the Ethiopian combatants who then agreed to organize a conference to select a transitional government.

13 May 1991: Winnie Mandela convicted of kidnapping

May 1991: Winnie Mandela
Winnie Mandela

Former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela was a controversial activist. She remains popular among her supporters, who refer to her as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, yet reviled by others after the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission found that she had personally been responsible for the murder, torture, abduction and assault of numerous men, women and children, as well as indirectly responsible for an even larger number of such crimes.

In December 1988, Jerry Richardson, who head of Mrs. Mandela’s personal security detail, abducted 14-year-old James Seipei and three other youths from the home of a Methodist minister, Rev. Paul Verryn, claiming she had the youths taken to her home because she suspected the reverend was sexually abusing them. The four were beaten to get them to admit to having had sex with the minister. Seipei was accused of being an informer, and his body later found in a field with stab wounds to the throat on 6 January 1989.

On 13 May 1991, she was acquitted of all but the kidnapping. Her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.

The final report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission, issued in 1998, found Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by her security detail.

In 1992, she was accused of ordering the murder of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat, a family friend who had examined Seipei at Mandela’s house, after Seipei had been abducted but before he had been killed. Mandela’s role was later probed as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, in 1997.[ She was said to have paid the equivalent of $8,000 and supplied the firearm used in the killing, which took place on 27 January 1989. The hearings were later adjourned amid claims that witnesses were being intimidated on Winnie Mandela’s orders.

May 1991: Other Events

On 31 May 1991, Minnie Munro married a man 18 years her junior. “He’s been waiting for me a long time,” she said. Minnie met Dudley Reid four years previously. ”I saw her across the room and I was immediately struck with her,” Dudley said. The pair married at Point Clare, New South Wales. She was 102 and he 84.

May 1991 also saw the Soviet Parliament overwhelmingly approve the country’s first law granting citizens the right to travel and emigrate freely.

May 1991 in Music, Movies, TV and Books

Backdraft movie poster

Music was quite diverse around the world in May 1991. Cher’s Shoop Shoop Song was huge in the UK while Roxette’s Joy Ride and Amy Grant’s Baby, Baby were topping the US charts. In Australia dominating May 1991 was The Horses by Daryl Braithwaite.

Two movies dominated the Box Office in May 1991 – Ron Howard’s Backdraft with its star cast of Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro; and Frank Oz’s comedy, What About Bob which starred Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus.

TV saw the final episode of Dallas on 3 May 1991. It had run for thirteen years. The “Who shot J R?” mystery from the series had the world waiting. The episode “Who Done It?” was the second highest rated prime-time telecast ever. The series was so popular that it got away with having the whole of the ninth season revealed as a dream of one of its characters.

Mary Higgins Clark’s Loves Music, Loves to Dance topped the Bestsellers list in May 1991. The suspense novel about a murderer whose victims are found wearing a single dancing shoe was to become a movie a decade later.

Why is minimalism such a big word?”