The great escape of Flight BA038
There was not enough time to warn the 136 passengers that they should adopt the brace position.
With just seconds to go before landing, Peter Burkill, captain of flight BA038, realised that his Boeing 777 was not going to make the runway rushing towards them.
It was 12.42pm. The flight, which had left Beijing 12 hours earlier, was on time. A minute from touchdown at Heathrow, Captain Burkill and his co-pilot discovered that the aircraft was dropping faster than the standard three-degree descent. There appeared to have been a catastrophic loss of power affecting both engines. The cockpit electronics may also have failed, leaving only the battery-powered airspeed indicator and altimeter operating.
In the next few seconds, the captain and his co-pilot would need all the skill they had accumulated in more than 20 years of flying to save their own lives, those of the 14 crew, passengers and potentially hundreds more in homes and schools under the flight path. What they did next was described as courageous and heroic by the chairman of British Airways last night.
Captain Peter Burkill, flying BA038, spotted the welcoming sight of Heathrow’s twin runways as the jet dropped out of cloud five miles from the airport. After more than 13 hours on duty, he and his co-pilot were looking forward to going home.
The air traffic controller at Heathrow’s tower had given them the final landing clearance and said there was only a slight crosswind averaging 18mph. Everything appeared to be going as normal as the aircraft descended gently over the well-worn approach over Central London.
Suddenly, in the cockpit, the atmosphere changed from routine to emergency drill. The aircraft’s two Rolls-Royce engines which had carried it uneventfully from Beijing for 12 hours, had gone lame. Still 400 yards short of the runway, Captain Burkill and his co-pilot sought to establish what was going wrong but with seconds to go before the aircraft hit the ground there was no time to warn passengers to brace themselves. Few of them noticed how close the aircraft was to homes and busy roads, but below them drivers in their cars ducked as the aircraft roared just 20ft over them.
After clearing the perimeter fence by a whisker, the 12 wheels on the two main landing gears slammed into the soggy turf about 40 yards beyond the fence. They dug in and were wrenched off by the aircraft’s momentum. The aircraft hurtled towards the runway, the unsupported fuselage and engines scraping along the grass.
Passengers were flung forward as it shuddered to a halt 400 yards from where it first touched down, and less than half its normal minimum landing distance when using full braking power.
As soon as it slithered to a stop the cabin crew wrenched open emergency doors, triggering gas canisters that inflated slides automatically. Within 90 seconds everyone was off the aircraft. Luggage and possessions were abandoned. The passengers were ushered across the grass as firecrews began filling the hot engines with foam. Disaster had been averted and only 18 people, including four crew, had been slightly injured during the evacuation.
A taxi driver who was at Heathrow as the aircraft came down said the rumbling noise of the its engines alerted him to the danger. He said it was so low “you would think you could lean out the window and touch it”.
“It passed over my vehicle at something like 20ft,” he told the BBC, “and over the perimeter [fence] at 15ft before it plunged into the runway. It hit the grass and the undercarriage went into the wings and the wings tilted up. It went about 200 yards and careered to a halt.”
An unnamed airport worker, speaking to the BBC, said that the pilot told him he had lost all power as the Boeing came in to land. He told News24: “He told me that aircraft shut down and he lost all his power and avionics. He just glided it in and lifted the nose up and managed to get it down. He lost power very close to coming in to land. He said he had no warning — it just went. It’s a miracle. The man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan. He has done a fantastic job.”
Martin Green, another airport worker, told Sky News: “It came in at a very high angle and just dropped like a stone — I would estimate 200ft.
“It seemed to be flying fairly slow and it had a very high angle of attack. The nose was high up in the air, which is very unusual.”
Mr Green, who has worked at the airport for 23 years, added: “It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that, and I hope it’s the last.”
It was the most serious incident at Heathrow for 30 years, forcing the airport to close the runway and divert dozens of flights. The Prime Minister’s chartered British Airways 747 was left stranded by its departure gate. It was taking him and 25 leading businessmen, including Sir Richard Branson, on an official visit to Beijing. Passengers on that aircraft, which was about 1km from the crash scene, were told that all take-offs and landings were halted because there was no fire cover for the rest of the airport. The flight, also carrying Dame Kelly Holmes, the Olympic gold medallist, was allowed to take off after a 90-minute delay.
Only after they touched down did the passengers on BA038 realise how close they had come to disaster.
Jerome Ensinck said he thought that the flight had simply suffered a hard landing. “When we hit the ground it was extremely rough but I’ve had rough landings before and I thought, ‘This is the roughest I’ve had’.
“Then the emergency exits were opened and we were all told we should go through as quickly as possible, and the moment I was away from the plane I started to realise that the undercarriage was away, and we had missed the runway. I feel lucky at the moment, but I think now I realise I’ve had a close call.”
Antonio De Crescenzo, 52, from Naples, said there was little warning that the plane was in difficulty. “We were coming in to land but the plane felt like it should have been taking off. The engines were roaring and then we landed and it was just banging. Some people started to scream. It was quite terrifying, although people seemed to be quite calm. I think people were quite surprised when they were told to evacuate down the chutes.”
Another passenger, Paul Venter, said: “The wheels came out and went for touchdown, and the next moment we just dropped. When everything came to a standstill, I looked out of the window and the undercarriage was gone and the plane was on its belly. I didn’t speak to the pilot but I saw him, and he looked very pale, but there was no communication in the cabin.”
Jason Johnson, who was also on the flight, told Sky News: “We came in very, very fast. Once it landed, it spun 90 degrees. I felt like I was in a washing machine. The plane then came to a complete halt. We were told by the hostesses, ‘Please evacuate, follow our guidance’.”
He said: “It knocks you for six. It makes you get a finite appreciation of what you do have. You think of your family and your loved ones, and just how much they mean to you. I think I’m going to go home, give my wife a kiss, and spend some quality time, talk . . . and get it out of my system.”
Mike Zihni, who lives less than 50 metres from Heathrow’s southern perimeter fence, had just woken when he heard the roar of the engines. Having heard thousands of planes descend through a channel slightly to the right of his house, the taxi driver knew instantly that something was amiss. “It was very loud, as if the plane was a lot closer to the ground. I don’t normally notice the sound of the planes, but this time it was weird. It was like a reverse thrust, as if one of the engines was going back. I am just glad it did not veer even slightly to the left or right, otherwise it could have been in the houses.”
Clues about what went so catastrophically wrong will be found on the aircraft’s flight data recorder and voice recorder.
Gli scambi si fanno in base ad interessi reciproci, peccato che il fine ultimo sia quello di dominare sugli altri.