Two Average Guys from Boston Just Found the Black Box of a Plane That Crashed in Bolivia 31 Years Ago

Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner, two average guys from Boston, recently set out on an expedition to find the black box of Eastern Flight 980, which crashed into the Andes Mountains killing everyone on board, 31 years ago. Believe it or not, they actually did it!

A year ago, while researching the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Dan Futrell discovered a fact he found very intriguing – since 1965, crash investigators have failed to recover flight data and cockpit voice recorders from almost 20 flights, including the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001. But it was another flight that really caught his attention – Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, which took off from Paraguay for Miami, on January 1, 1985. It crashed into the side of Illimani Mountain and its black box was never recovered. Crash investigators have long suspected that the recording device had landed in an area that was nearly inaccessible, but this was something Futrell simply could not accept. “How is it that there is a place on this Earth that we can’t reach?” the young man wrote on his blog.

He and his friend Isaac Stoner spent the following year planning an expedition to the Andes Mountains, in Bolivia, with the sole purpose of searching for the missing black box of Eastern Air Lines Flight 980. “Dan and I are both remarkably average dudes: average height, average weight, average athletic ability, average lookin’…I would venture to say neither of us is beyond 2 standard deviations from average intelligence either. And yet here we are, about to try to do something pretty non-average,” Isaac wrote on their blog before flying off to Bolivia. “This is not exactly the trip that most people would book for their summer vacation. If we fail in finding the black box, I hope that this trip will at least inspire some other average folks to get off the couch and do something un-ordinary (if not extraordinary) themselves.”


Photo: Operation Thonapa

In 1985, several search planes and ground teams combed the snowy peaks and ragged crevices of the Andes for the wreckage of Flight 980, but they never managed to find the plane’s recording devices, which could provide evidence of what caused it to crash. 30 years of being exposed to harsh weather wasn’t going to improve Dan and Isaac’s chances of finding the missing black boxes. Natural forces had moved things around, which meant they had to expand the search area, and, to make matters worse, neither of them had any experience tracking down things on rough mountainous terrain. However, they were relying on their good physical shape, an experience guide and sheer willpower to see them through this challenge.

After weeks of traveling, the ambitious duo reached the slopes of Illimani and started the search for the long-lose black boxes of Flight 980. To reach the presumed crash site, they had to climb for 15 hours to an altitude of over 20,000 feet above sea level, in a region plagued by yellow fever. The details of their operation are yet unknown, as the two have declined to comment, apparently due to an exclusivity agreement with Outside Magazine, which had a reporter accompanying them on their journey, but according to their most recent blog posts, the two men have managed to recover what they were looking for.


Photo: Operation Thonapa

“After we’d given up for the evening, Isaac did something he’d done hundreds of times over the previous three days, turning over pieces of metal to check their color. Only this piece he turned over was orange, just like the previous five pieces, and it had cables sticking out of it. On a plastic wrapping around the cables was the writing “CKPT VO RCDR”,” one of their posts reads. Dan and Isaac found several other pieces of scrap metal with the same markings found on the black box marked CKPT VO RCDR (or Cockpit Voice Recorder), as well as a roll of magnetic tape which they believe may have come from inside the black box.

The chances of this tape still being readable after 30 years of exposure to the elements are very slim, but if anything can be recovered from it, it might actually help solve a three-decade old mystery. Past speculations regarding the reason for the plane crash included the pilots receiving faulty flight information from drunk air traffic control officers after New Year’s celebrations, a bomb and cocaine smuggled on board. Even the two intrepid adventurers agree that some details about the crash are somewhat strange. “In a recent interview, we learned that the first search party had located the pilot cockpit seats, empty, and without any traces of blood,” Isaac wrote on his blog. “I’m a scientific skeptic, but there are unknown unknowns surrounding this crash.”


Photo: Operation Thonapa

Dan and Isaac have reached out to authorities to “determine what, if any, information they can get from the metal casings of the recorders” and “determine if any information can be pulled from the tape that we found.” Whatever the outcome, they both agree that their ambitious trip to Bolivia accomplished its goals. Apart from finding the black box of Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, they set out to “live a life of adventure, to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, and to come back with a story.” Mission accomplished!

Operation Thonapa via The Boston Globe