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Operation Persistence

September 1998

Order of events

2 September 1998 9:18 pm ADT

Swissair Flight 111 took off from New York

2 September 1998 10:14 pm ADT

Pilots detected smoke in the cockpit

2 September 1998 10:31 pm ADT

Swissair Flight 111 crashed in St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia

2 September

Swissair Flight 111 search and rescue efforts began

3 September 1998

Search and rescue mission became a search and recovery operation

6 September 1998

Swissair Flight 111 flight data recorder recovered

11 September 1998

Swissair Flight 111 cockpit voice recorder recovered

December 1999

Swissair Flight 111 wreckage recovery operations completed

27 March 2003

Transportation Safety Board released its final report on the Swissair Flight 111 tragedy

When disaster strikes, Canada's military is at the ready. In September 1998, the Canadian Armed Forces responded to the Swissair Flight 111 tragedy - right here at home.

Stories from Operation Persistence

Helping after disasters

The Canadian Armed Forces perform many duties here in Canada. They launch search-and-rescue operations when ships are in distress or planes go down in remote areas. But sometimes they play a different role after a major accident. Tragically, this was the case with Swissair Flight 111.

A deadly plane crash

On the evening of 2 September 1998, Swissair Flight 111 took off from New York City. About an hour into its flight to Geneva, Switzerland, the crew detected smoke in the cockpit. The MD-11 passenger jet diverted to the Halifax International Airport. Despite the pilots’ best efforts, the fire spread and they lost control of the plane. At 10:31 PM, the plane plummeted into St. Margaret’s Bay, about eight kilometres off the Nova Scotia coast, near the famous fishing village of Peggy’s Cove.

HMCS Moncton, newly commissioned in July 1998 and crewed mostly with Navy Reservists, was deployed to the crash site.

The initial response

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax immediately launched a search-and-rescue operation. Local fishermen and other boaters, many of whom were volunteers with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, were first on the scene. They set out to look for possible survivors in the dark of night. HMCS Ville de Quebec was at sea nearby and also sailed to the site. Other Canadian Navy and Coast Guard ships were dispatched from Halifax, only an hour away by water. Military helicopters and airplanes were soon flying overhead as well.

No survivors

The aircraft was completely destroyed and tragically all 215 passengers and 14 crew members on board had immediately perished. By the following afternoon it was clear that the rescue mission was instead going to be a recovery mission. Rescue aircraft were withdrawn. Recovery vessels and divers moved in to look for human remains and debris. The investigation of what had caused the accident began.

Operation Persistence

The response to the of Swissair Flight 111 tragedy was named Operation Persistence. The Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police played key roles. Various groups like the United States Navy and the Red Cross were also involved. It was one of the largest domestic military operations in our country’s history. More than 2,400 Canadian Armed Forces members, 450 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers (whose contributions came as part of Operation Homage) and hundreds of Canadian Coast Guard personnel took part.

Part of the Swissair Flight 111 landing gear after being brought up from the ocean floor.

Canadian Armed Forces contributions

Approximately 1,300 Canadian navy, 700 army and 400 air force personnel served in Operation Persistence. HMCS Preserver became the command ship for the recovery efforts at sea. Military helicopters and patrol planes searched for human remains and wreckage floating in the water. Divers, remote underwater vehicles and the submarine HMCS Okanagan searched the ocean floor. It was a challenging task, as the wreckage was approximately 55 metres below the waves. Soldiers walked the coast for weeks, looking for remains and collecting debris that washed up on shore. They also helped handle and transport the recovered material.

Our military personnel would not be the only Canadians in uniform to play a major role in the aftermath of the Swissair disaster. For instance, Royal Canadian Mounted Police members (serving under the mission name Operation Homage) also made key contributions in the recovery, identification and investigation process.

A temporary morgue was established after the accident at nearby Canadian Forces Base Shearwater to receive the human remains. Large facilities in Sheet Harbour and Halifax became sites for sorting debris and reassembling the front portion of the jetliner. It was all in the effort to try to understand what had gone wrong with Swissair Flight 111.

Pieces of Swissair Flight 111 wreckage on the deck of a barge in St. Margaret's Bay.

Looking for the cause

A key focus of the recovery efforts was finding the flight data recorder (“black box”) and cockpit voice recorder. These were important to determine the cause of the accident. After days of underwater searching by sonar, HMCS Okanagan located the flight data recorder on 6 September 1998. The cockpit voice recorder was subsequently recovered on 11 September 1998.

The final phase of the wreckage recovery operations ended in December 1999, with 98% of material from the plane found. This included more than 126,000 kg of the aircraft itself, as well as over 18,000 kg of cargo. By the time the investigation closed, the authorities identified remains from everyone aboard the jet. This was not an easy task. The work was exceptionally hard and stressful for the Canadian Armed Forces and other personnel involved.

Lessons learned

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada made important recommendations after their investigation. Aviation authorities around the world put many of them into effect. Changes regarding aircraft wiring, insulation and fire retardant materials have enhanced the safety of air travel.

Swissair Flight 111 reconstruction efforts for the front portion of the cockpit used debris recovered from the crash site.


The Swissair Flight 111 tragedy was the second-deadliest air accident to ever occur in Canada. Today, special memorials to the disaster stand at Whalesback, NS near Peggy’s Cove, and Bayswater. They overlook the waters of St. Margaret’s Bay where the passenger jet went down in September 1998, affecting so many lives.

Visitors look out to St. Margaret's Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from the Peggy's Cove Swissair 111 Memorial in Whalesback, NS.

The price of service

Many of the Canadian Armed Forces members who took part in Operation Persistence were young reservists. The Swissair Flight 111 recovery efforts were physically and emotionally exhausting for most involved. Difficult memories followed many people for years afterward. Some service members suffered from post-traumatic stress disorders.

The risks of Canadian military service are not only found during deployments in war-torn countries around the world. Operations here at home can also take a high toll.

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