WITH HIDEOUS abruptness and finality, the crash of a chartered DC8 jetliner from the skies over Gander, Newfoundland, has taken the lives of 248 members of the Army's crack 101st Airborne Division along with those of an Arrow Air charter flight crew of eight -- to become the worst disaster in military aviation history in this most lethal year ever for airline deaths. And while investigators continue their grim sifting through the wreckage for clues to the cause of this 8th-worst-ever air crash, people everywhere must feel keen sympathy for the friends and relatives of the dead.

One can only surmise how wrenching it must be for the kin who had seen their soldiers through a six-month tour of duty in the Sinai Desert and who were but hours from what was to be a joyous holiday welme back to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Here were 248 of their number who had survived the most dangerous part of their duty -- a mission, the base commander noted, that had been "absolutely flawless."

Where the crash will fit into this puzzling and terrible year for aviation -- more than 1,900 people killed -- isn't known. If anything, the absence of a pattern in these crashes has frustrated efforts to explain and address them. And statements about the relative safety of air travel pale in the immediate grief that the country shares.