For many people, the period of COVID-19 restrictions was a time of staying in their homes for much of the time, whereas I took this opportunity to have some amazing adventures. It started out from this tradgedy over 30 years ago.
“Lauda Air Flight 004 (OE-LAV) was a regularly scheduled commercial passenger flight from Bangkok, Thailand’s Don Muang International Airport (BKK) to Vienna-Schwechat International Airport (VIE) in Austria. On the 26th of May, 1981, Lauda Air flight number NG004 took off from Bangkok at 23:02 Bangkok time for the 10-hour flight to Vienna, Austria.
Sixteen minutes after the takeoff, the 18-month-old aircraft, a Boeing 767-3Z9ER, broke up mid-air and exploded over Phu Toei National Park, Suphan Buri Province, Thailand, killing all 223 people aboard, which included 213 passengers and 10 flight crew. The crash site is about 100 miles northwest of Bangkok. The cause of the crash was determined to be the uncommanded deployment of the number one (left) jet engine’s thrust reverser at 24,000 feet. Cockpit instruments from the crash scene indicate the plane reached a speed of Mach .99, which is the maximum speed that can be recorded, so it is likely the plane actually exceeded the speed of sound in its descent.”
Riding to the Haunting Site of the Lauda Air Flight 004 Plane Crash
At the beginning of the COVID outbreak, I was in China, and then I moved on to Vietnam and finally to Thailand in March 2020. I spent the summer of 2020 touring along the eastern front of Ukraine, returning just in time for the US election debacle in November 2020. I then returned to Thailand and spent much of the following two years of COVID restrictions there, in Vietnam and Ukraine, all of which kept me far away from the overweight “Mask Karens” so plentiful in the United States.
In late 2021, I watched YouTube videos about solo motorcycle adventures in Thailand. Having motorcycles in Thailand, Vietnam, and Ukraine meant that while I was in these countries, I spent as much time riding and exploring as possible.
One video that really caught my eye was a couple of guys on BMW and KTM adventure bikes riding into Phu Toei National Park in Thailand to go up the mountain and see the crash site of Lauda Air Flight 004, which crashed 30 years earlier.
It was interesting because I was not only in Thailand and looking for places to explore but also had a historical connection to Lauda Air. Its founder, former F-1 World Champion Niki Lauda, was sponsored by AGV Helmets when I started importing them into the United States. AGV had shipped me some actual race replica helmets for a trade show in the 1980s, and one of them was Niki’s actual helmet from his near-fatal crash at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1976. AGV kept it unsecured in a closet at their factory in Valenza, Italy.
After the US trade show, I pressured them to leave it in the office here, where it could be in a glass case in a secure office and would be safe until they needed it again. And it stayed here for many years, safe and sound, until one-day AGV asked me to send the helmet to Tokyo, Japan, for the motor show there, where the helmet promptly “disappeared” after the Expo and was never seen again to this day. I can only imagine the value of such a unique collector’s item in the hands of some wealthy Formula One fanatic.
I watched the videos several times to judge the trail conditions, distances between towns and gas stations, and other factors since I planned to make this trip alone. I first realized that the Kawasaki Z250 I owned in Thailand would not be the appropriate motorcycle for this off-road adventure.
So, I decided to make this trip in late January 2022 and to rent a motorcycle from Mark at BSR Motorbike Rental in Bangkok. I had a good experience over the years and knew he had several of the CFR 250 enduro bikes.
I rented the Honda for four days, strapped on some auxiliary fuel tanks on the rear rack, and set off for Phu Toei.
Along the way, I stopped at the Lauda Air cemetery and memorial, which is quite far from the crash site. It is about an hour and a half closer to Bangkok and was built on some land donated by a local government after the crash.
After leaving the cemetery, it was still quite a long way to the entrance of the park. The total time from leaving Bangkok to the entrance of the park was about four hours of riding.
The first of many surprises was when I arrived at the base of the mountain where the entrance to the park was, to see the parking lot was not only completely empty but looked like no one had been there in a long time, perhaps more than two years.
I managed to find a single security guard who was just a local villager employed to sit in a little hut and collect a fee for people entering the park. He did not speak English, but it was clear he was surprised to see me, and he hadn’t sold a ticket in quite some time. We managed to figure out enough communication to handle the transaction, and after paying a couple of dollars, I entered the park and began the long ride up the mountain.
At first, everything seemed normal and going to plan as I had imagined from watching all the YouTube videos. The dirt road leading from the entrance was smooth, about a single car length wide, and would have been easy.
But quite soon, maybe not more than a half-mile, the smooth dirt road turned into a smooth dirt trail. Then, within a quarter-mile of that, the smooth dirt trail turned into more of a single track but was still manageable.
The signs of erosion from the Thai rainy season were clear, and the washouts in the trail became more frequent and large until I got to the point where there was a washout so wide and so deep that you could have put a pickup truck in it, and it wouldn’t have filled the gap.
It appeared some local villagers who used that trail to traverse the mountain had built a bamboo bridge across it with no rails. It was just horizontal and vertical pieces of large bamboo strapped together with rope, twine, and nothing else. It reminded me of the “Bridge of Death” scene from Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail.
It did not help that in the rainforest, everything was damp and wet, so the prospects of driving across this gorge on this shiny, round, wet, flexing bamboo bridge seemed more than a little sketchy, and I began to question my whole plan based on watching these YouTube videos, which had been filmed some years before.
Having seen the videos versus what the actual trail looked like, as well as the fact that there was not a single human being in this huge national park except for me, I began to understand that since the beginning of COVID, there had been no maintenance done to the park trails. I hadn’t considered this, but I should have because I was at a National Park in Chiang Mai a month earlier and rode to the mountain’s top on very narrow trails. When I arrived at the peak, there was a big sign that only a hiker or motorcyclist could have seen, saying the park was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anybody who spent any time in Thailand during this period would know not only how much the government and the people overreacted to COVID-19 but, in many cases, did the exact opposite of what would have been correct based on actual science! Let’s say from 2020 to 2022, Thailand was Dr. Fauci’s dream scenario.
Having spent more than a month planning this trip and riding more than six hours, persistence won out over wisdom, and I decided to proceed. I got a little running start and made it across the bridge, although I certainly had a huge rush of adrenaline and a pit in my stomach when I felt how much the bridge flexed under the weight of the motorcycle and rider.
After crossing the bridge, the trail continued without anything too challenging, just an overgrown single track through the bamboo forest. When I finally arrived at the crash site in the late afternoon, it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I was alone in this national park on the top of this mountain, standing right next to a perfectly painted white and red 10-foot piece of the tail of this Austrian airliner some 30 years later. But the components were in such good condition it seemed like this crash was last year or maybe three years ago, but it couldn’t possibly be three decades ago.
And the bamboo was so tall, three or four stories at least, and very dense. If you’ve never heard bamboo’s creaking noise when it sways in the wind, it is one of the most eerie sounds you can imagine. So when you are alone standing in this crash site, and you know how many people died in this place, and you hear this creaking noise when the bamboo sways as the sun starts to go down, it is a very eerie and surreal feeling.
As it was getting late and I had a long way to go, even to the nearest village, I took some photographs of the debris field and of some of the larger components and then turned around and started heading back down the mountain.
Almost as soon as I started, the skies opened up, and a tropical downpour enveloped me. Because it was getting late, I didn’t want to stop, so I just continued down the mountain. About a quarter of a mile before the bamboo death trap bridge, my front wheel bounced off a wet rock on a steep, rocky ledge, and down I went.
Unfortunately, I went first and the bike second, so when it landed on my left ankle on the hill, I was down the hill from the motorcycle, making it impossible to push the bike up against the force of gravity. My ankle was completely pinned between the cases of the Honda and the rocks I had slipped on. The only way I could free myself was just to pull my leg out from under it without lifting the motorcycle up, and this probably caused more damage and injury than the actual crash itself.
I had not planned for this ride to be fast or aggressive. It was just an adventure for photos. But that’s what everyone says. How many times are you told before you get your driver’s license that most fatal accidents happen within a few miles of your home when you’re just running to the store for some milk?
Of course, that is compounded by the fact that as the owner of a motorcycle safety apparel company, there’s even less excuse for wearing regular shoes and not wearing actual boots made for motorcycles. No person, no matter what their experience or intelligence or education, is immune from making foolish decisions based on some preconceived idea of the mathematical improbability that they will have an accident!
After pulling my torn ankle out from under the bike, I had to get to the bamboo bridge, cross that, and ride out of the park until I could get to at least a paved two-lane country road. The initial plan was to ride to a small town about an hour away, stay overnight, and assess the damage.
At that point, I was still operating on adrenaline, and although extremely painful, I still had relative mobility, and the swelling had not begun yet. But by the time I got to the bamboo bridge, I began to realize that if I stayed overnight, I might be unable even to walk the next day to get to a hospital to receive whatever treatment I needed. So I decided to suck it up and attempt to ride back to Bangkok, which was about a six-hour ride, and most of it would be at night.
That turned out to be the best decision I had made in the last few days, certainly a much better decision than the plan to ride up this remote mountain in tennis shoes in a tropical monsoon in a park deserted during COVID-19 hysteria. About an hour and a half ago, I had to stop at a gas station and literally could not put any weight on my left foot, not even an ounce. I had to hop around on my right foot, looking like some moronic helmeted kangaroo. By this point, my foot had swollen to more than twice the normal size, and I had to release all the laces in my shoe to accommodate the swelling.
Riding a motorcycle in Thailand at night is always exciting and risky. Doing this while being distracted with such serious injury and not being able to go at average speeds or to shift properly makes it all the more questionable. I made it to a hospital in the north suburbs of Bangkok before midnight. It’s too bad I was injured and in such pain because the place was so beautiful.
I’ve never seen a hospital like that in the United States. I thought I was in the Ritz Carlton. It was modern and spotlessly clean, and none of the staff or nurses were overweight. Most looked like they could have competed in the Miss Thai beauty pageant.
There was no waiting, and the doctor spent quite a lot of time with me, something I wasn’t used to in the United States. I ended up in an ankle and foot brace with six weeks of therapy, which included ultrasonic treatments and physical therapy. The medical treatment is first-rate. I recommend if you’re going to have a motorcycle accident and break an ankle or wrist that you have it near a modern hospital in Thailand. And my medical bill with no insurance for the original emergency room visit and six weeks of follow-up doctor visits and physical therapy was less than $1500! WOW!
My little mishap was on January 21st, 2022, and theoretically, I should have gotten out of my great therapy about March 15. But on February 22nd, 2022, the latest variation of the Ukraine-Russia conflict broke out, and I wanted to travel to Ukraine to help some of my friends as well as meet with that person who is in Kyiv and could not leave the country because he was a male between the ages of 16 and 70.
So, I convinced the Thai doctor to let me out of the brace about a week earlier and headed off to Ukraine in the first week of March. And it was very coincidental because my flight path was from Bangkok, Thailand, to Vienna, Austria, on an Austrian Airlines Boeing 767 and then on to Warsaw, Poland, where I then drove to the Ukrainian border.
It was Austrian Airlines that bought Lauda Air from Niki Lauda so the flight I was on was not only on the same route but it was the same company and the same model aircraft as Lauda Air Flight 004, which had crashed 30 years prior in a bamboo forest in Phu Toei Joei National Park.
So, after Ukraine, I spent three more months staying away from all the mask Karens until May. The story of Lauda Air Flight 004 is fascinating and too long for me to write in this article, but I have included some links below; anyone interested should check them out. It’s an incredible story, and Niki Lauda was an incredible man.
Lauda Air Flight 004 Boeing 767 Crash in Phu Toei Park Thailand, North of Bangkok
Summary of the Lauda Flight 004 Crash in Phu Toei National Park in Thailand:
After riding for 4 hours from Bangkok, I entered Phu Toei National Park, which has the distinction of being the least visited National Park in all of Thailand. I have no idea why; it’s not that far from Bangkok, an incredibly overpopulated city with a metro area approaching 15 million people, and this park is beautiful. I have read accounts that less than 500 people per year visit the park.
And since my journey there was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was literally alone, the only person in this entire National Park. I did not see another soul for the entire day, and over the many miles, I traveled by motorcycle and on foot. As I made my way up the mountain on the dirt trail, the only sign of human existence I saw was a park sign with the words “Fallen Airplane Point.”
I continued on to the top of a mountain where the debris field is large, and most of it has been swallowed back by nature into the jungle. But even the jungle can’t hide the remains of a Boeing 767, and there are pieces of the aircraft everywhere, ranging from as small as a few inches to more than 10 feet long. The largest piece, possibly from the tail—I’m not sure if it’s the vertical stabilizer—but the white and red paint of Lauda Air and the Austrian flag looked so fresh that you would think this crash happened a year ago, not three decades ago. There are a number of little green and red painted shrines in the forest amongst the crash debris that have been built by local villagers to placate the wandering spirits of the victims of Lauda Air Flight 004.
Since I was making this trip alone, I had told a number of people about my plans in the days before my departure. Most, if not all of them, asked me if it would not feel strange or even scary to be standing in the wreckage of this plane crash where so many people had been killed and in such a remote area where there’s not even mobile phone service. I never thought twice about it, and the fact that I was feeling totally constricted everywhere in the world I went due to all of the idiotic COVID-19 restrictions made me want to have every possible adventure and worry about ghosts and spirits in the forested mountains of Thailand was not on my mind.
Wandering around the debris field alone and seeing how many pieces there were and in what good condition they were surprised me. Many pieces of aluminum, plastic, and fiberglass looked like they were less than a few months or maybe years old; it did not seem possible they had been lying there for 30 years. While I was walking among the pieces of the plane crash, the overall feeling was one of surprise and amazement more than fear or anything superstitious.
However, towards the end, when I was getting prepared to leave, a storm started to roll in, and the sky darkened. On the forest floor, not a lot of direct sunlight gets in, so even though it was late afternoon, it seemed more like early evening. The entire hill and mountain are covered in towering stalks of bamboo, swaying in the wind and making the most eerie creaking noise I’ve ever heard. And that was the moment when I first felt a bit uncomfortable and was ready to start the long ride home.
I have been fascinated with studying aviation disasters for quite a long time. I believe this is due to the fact that I have been traveling internationally since I was 12 years old, and the fact that I have flown more than 3 million miles, which is roughly 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon. I think I have watched every single episode of the May Day / Air Crash Investigations Documentary series at least once, and some I’ve probably watched three or four times.
The crash of Lauda Air Flight 004 (NG004/LDA004) is one of the most interesting to me because of the following:
- The unique connection to Niki Lauda through three helmets, and having his helmet from the 1976 Nürburgring German Grand Prix crash in my office for many years.
- The unusual fact is that a former Formula One champion went on to start his own commercial airline and that he was a pilot himself and actually flew some of the flights personally.
- The further coincidence that I spend a lot of time in Thailand and own a motorcycle there. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, while I was looking for interesting outdoor activities, I stumbled across some YouTube videos about other motorcyclists riding up the mountain to the crash site.
- What also makes this interesting to me was Niki’s personal participation in the recovery of the black boxes and his fight with Boeing to get them to admit liability and retrofit all the Boeing 767s in the world with a mechanism that would prevent the unintentional deployment of a thrust reverser in flight from happening again.
- This was the first crash of a Boeing 767 anywhere in the world, and this particular aircraft, Reg OE-LAV, was only 1.7 years old. The crash of Lauda Air Flight 004 remains the deadliest aviation accident in the history of Thailand.
Here is a brief timeline of the entire incident:
On May 26, 1991, Flight 4, a Boeing 767-3Z9ER (Reg OE-LAV, named Mozart), originated from Hong Kong with a brief layover at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, with the final destination planned for Vienna International Airport in Austria.
At about 11:17 at night, the plane was at or near its cruising altitude as it passed by Suphan Buri, Thailand, headed in a northwest direction towards a mountainous area where Phu Toei National Park is located. At an altitude of over 30,000 feet, the number one engine (left) suffered an uncommanded deployment of the thrust reverser. This deployment caused a loss of 25% of the lift on the aircraft’s left wing while putting incredible stress on the airframe and leading to an aerodynamic stall.
The Boeing 767 began diving into a left turn, and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) captured the sounds of the aircraft alert, the final words of the flight crew, and even the twisting and snapping, shuddering noises of the fuselage and wings bending and eventually being torn off the plane. The aircraft’s structural limits were exceeded by the extreme velocity of the dive and the maneuvers to try to save the plane.
The aircraft instruments indicated that it reached 0.99 Mach in terminal speed; however, since that is the maximum value that the aircraft sensors can display, it is believed that the plane actually exceeded the speed of sound in its descent. The aircraft broke up in midair, with the wings detaching completely before several pieces of the fuselage impacted the terrain and exploded. At this point, the plane would have been full of fuel for its flight to Vienna, Austria, so there were explosions and fires on the ground from all the unburned jet fuel.
The crash site is in a remote area of bamboo forest in the mountains of Phu Toei National Park in Suphan Buri Province. The debris field is over one square kilometer in size, with the tail section and main pieces of fuselage coming down quite far from the engines. In a straight line, it is about 112 miles (180 km) from Bangkok. The actual driving time to the entrance of the park is between 3 to 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather conditions. From the park’s entrance, it could take another 30 or 40 minutes to get to the actual debris field by motorcycle or quite a bit longer by hiking.
The recovery efforts were not only hampered by the remote location, lack of roads, dense bamboo forest, and high heat and humidity but also by the fact that a large number of local villagers, as well as some of the first volunteer rescuers, were looting the wreckage. During the looting, many personal effects were taken, such as jewelry, electronics, wallets, and purses, so that the relatives were never able to recover the personal effects of their loved ones. This was a national embarrassment to the Thai government and people and received quite a lot of major media coverage at the time.
Additionally, there were difficulties in storing and identifying all of the passengers’ bodies. The bodies that were recovered were taken to a hospital in Bangkok, but they did not have refrigeration capabilities large enough to store all of them, so many of the bodies decomposed. Forensic and dental examiners had to work for several months to identify the remains, but 27 of the passengers were never identified.
The Lauda Air Cemetery was created as both a burial place for the unidentified passengers as well as a memorial to all those who perished on Flight 004. The cemetery is about an hour south of the actual crash site, going back towards the direction of Bangkok, and is located near Wat Sra Kaeo Sri Sanphet.
The land was donated by the family of the Chiang Mai Governor, of which five members, including Governor Pairat Decharin and his wife, were killed in the crash. There is a shelter there with plaques with the names of all the passengers and crew who died in the crash. In front of this shelter is a burial area for the victims whose remains could never be identified.
Niki Lauda was notified of the crash within hours, and he flew to Thailand and personally participated in the recovery and further investigation, which went on for almost eight months.
“The Accident Investigation Committee of the Government of Thailand determined that the probable cause of the crash was an uncommanded in-flight deployment of the left engine thrust reverser, which resulted in a loss of control of the aircraft. The actual specific cause of the thrust reverser deployment was never discovered.
Niki Lauda spent many hours in flight simulators trying to recreate what happened to Flight 004 and to understand if there was any possibility the pilots could have saved the plane.
Niki concluded it was impossible and actually traveled to Boeing, and even in their flight simulator, he was unable to recover the plane with 15 different tries in the simulator. Eventually, he pressured Boeing into a public statement acknowledging that it was impossible for any flight crew to recover from an uncommanded deployment of a thrust reverser at full cruising speed and altitude.
Lauda’s persistence and pressure on Boeing resulted in the company issuing an alert to all airlines worldwide, stating that more than 1600 Boeing aircraft, including 737s, 747s, 757s, and 767s, had thrust reversers similar or identical to the ones used in the Lauda Air Flight 004 aircraft, Reg OE-LAV, call name Mozart. Within months, all the airlines were told by Boeing to replace potentially faulty valves that were used in these Boeing thrust reverser systems and could possibly have an uncommanded deployment during flight.
For further interesting facts about Lauda Air Flight 004:
Looting at Thai Crash Scene Denounced : Disaster: Villagers may have a complicated search for clues to cause of loss of Austrian airliner.
Lauda Air Flight 004 (Wikipedia Page)
Boeing 767-300ER Lauda Air Flight NG 004, OE-LAV Bangkok, Thailand May 26, 1991 US Federal Aviation Administration
Accidental Reverse Thrust Deployment: The Story Of Lauda Air Flight 004
Pilgrimage to Thai air crash site for the aunt he never met
Google Maps Lauda Air 004 Debris
Google Maps Lauda Air Shrine:
VIDEO: The Mystery Behind the Crash of Lauda Flight 004 Air Disasters | Smithsonian Channel
VIDEO: This Plane’s Thrust Reversers Weren’t Supposed to Deploy Midair | Smithsonian Channel
VIDEO: HOW an Impossible Failure CRASHED this Boeing 767!
Michael’s Summary and Conclusion
Lauda Air Flight 004 was a catastrophic aviation accident that occurred on May 26, 1991. The flight, operated by Lauda Air, an airline founded by former Formula One champion Niki Lauda, was a scheduled international passenger service from Bangkok, Thailand, to Vienna, Austria. The aircraft, a Boeing 767-300ER, crashed shortly after takeoff from Bangkok, resulting in the tragic loss of all 213 passengers and 10 crew members onboard.
The crash was caused by the in-flight deployment of the number 1 engine thrust reverser, which led to an uncontrollable roll and breakup of the aircraft in mid-air. This was one of the first times in aviation history that an in-flight thrust reverser deployment had caused an aircraft crash.
Niki Lauda’s personal involvement in the aftermath of the crash was significant and widely recognized. Despite facing immense grief and pressure, Lauda took a proactive role in the investigation. He was determined to discover the cause of the crash and ensure such an incident would not happen again. Lauda personally visited the crash site and was actively involved in discussions with Boeing and aviation authorities.
His persistence led to re-evaluating the safety measures and design of thrust reversers on jet engines. Lauda’s direct involvement was crucial in uncovering the technical issues that led to the tragedy, and his efforts contributed to improving safety standards in the aviation industry. His commitment to uncovering the truth and ensuring flight safety left a lasting impact and highlighted his dedication to the airline and its passengers.
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