BA pilot hero: 'The day that changed my life for ever'

Pilot Peter Burkill was hailed a hero when he landed a stricken plane. But he could not have predicted the traumatic effect on his family.

For Peter and Maria Burkill, this was the dream. As they sit on the balcony of their half-million pound home, their three young sons play in a garden leading to the edge of the River Severn, where a sculler slips past in silence. In 1987, Peter landed a job with British Airways when it really was the world's favourite airline. Skilled, dashing and eventually earning £130,000 a year, he had it all. And then the dream came crashing to earth, leaving a family on the brink.

"Speedbird 38, cleared to land." Burkill prepares to bring down BA038 from Beijing to London Heathrow. It's 17 January 2008 and, though Burkill, captain on the flight, doesn't know it, there are just 35 seconds from impact. In Worcester, Maria is caring for 10-week-old Coby, Troy, three, and one-year-old Logan. Their father has been away for days.

"We were all looking forward to getting home," he recalls. Everything seems normal on the flight deck of the Boeing 777, where the first officer, John Coward, has taken the controls so that Burkill can direct the landing. "Stable," the captain announces. "Well, sort of," Coward replies. The first officer is pushing the throttles, but nothing happens. There has been a double engine failure. Following protocol, Burkill leaves Coward at the controls while he tries to rescue the situation.

With 21 seconds to impact, the loss in power is causing an alarming drop in speed. "We were about to stall and fall out of the sky," Burkill says. The only way to go faster is to take a steeper approach.

It works, but results in a terrifying change of view through the windscreen. "We were heading straight for the buildings around Hatton Cross Tube station," Burkill recalls. "For an aircraft travelling at about 125mph, that's carnage. There were 152 people on board and we were all going to die." Burkill must reduce the drag to create enough lift to clear Hatton Cross. "If I could make the perimeter road at least some of us might survive," he says. Burkill, who will later say adrenalin seemed almost to "extend time", turns to the flaps, which are fully extended. Bringing them in will reduce drag, but could increase the risk of stalling. He takes the gamble – an instinctive move found in no simulator programme.

Seconds later, the aircraft's 14 giant wheels pass just six metres above the busy A30 before slamming into the grass at 124mph, 330 metres short of the runway. Burkill is powerless as screams echo in the cabin and his plane starts to break up as it hurtles across the airfield. He's terrified it will cartwheel or turn into a fireball. "I started to say goodbye to Maria and the boys in my head," he says, his voice cracking. Finally, the flight comes to a stop. To Burkill's surprise, none of the crew is injured, but, still believing many of his passengers to be dead and with the risk of fire high, he makes the call every pilot dreads: "This is the captain. This is an emergency: Evacuate, evacuate."

The next day, Burkill saw his photograph splashed across front pages. Thanks to his actions, there had been only minor injuries among passengers and crew. After a hero's welcome, he revealed at a packed BA press conference that Coward had been at the controls. Company policy prevented him saying anything else – leaving some reporters wondering what Burkill's role had been.

It was the start of a crash course in journalism that would leave the family dizzied and bruised. Maria says her "heart stood still" when she saw live footage of the crash site. Quickly reassured by Peter, she next got a call from the pilots' union, which advised her to get out of Worcester. Maria, 36, raced with her children to the family's timeshare at a Somerset holiday resort. But it wasn't long before reporters started calling. Others door-stepped her mother in Merseyside. "It was hard not to get angry," Maria says. "But I understood that if they had something to work with they would back off. Instead, it looked like we were hiding something."

Burkill, who is now 45, had been advised to stay at Heathrow on the night of the crash. Maria, alone and confused, began to resent her husband's absence. Meanwhile, reporters were desperate for new material. Three days after the crash, with the family reunited, a Sunday paper ran a picture showing a young Burkill at a party, where he lay with a stick of liquorice between his buttocks. "It wasn't pleasant," Maria says.

The story of flight 38 quickly became one of character. Coward was cast as the new hero. Burkill became the George Clooney look-alike playboy who didn't even land the plane. It was a portrayal the pilot could bear, but then things got nasty. Nine days after the crash, a newspaper, quoting unnamed "aviation experts", suggested Burkill had frozen at the controls. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "BA told me not to worry, but I knew everybody would read it." When Burkill returned to the air a month after the crash, cabin crew said BA trainers had repeated the rumour. Burkill felt like he could "do anything" after the crash. "My confidence was sky-high, but I was getting the horrible feeling that everything was against me." Fearing he had lost the trust of his colleagues, he took sick leave: "I realised that if the same thing happened again, I would take the controls. It would have been wrong – there would have been deaths – but at least they couldn't say I'd frozen." Back at home, the pilot fell into a hole of depression and paranoia. "I'd take it out on the boys," he says. "I'd shout at Troy – really shout at him – just for being a normal three-year-old." Maria: "If my Mum hadn't been living in a one-bed retirement flat, if there had been somewhere to take the children away from Pete's volatile moods, I would have gone. And I don't think I would have come back." It was after an especially fierce row that Maria confronted Burkill, dragging him out of his hole. Four months after the crash, he returned to work.

But the rumours still dogged him. Desperate, Burkill explained his torment in a letter to BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh. He says the letter was never acknowledged. In the meantime, an official report revealed that a buildup of ice in fuel lines had caused the crash – and that the crew had averted a catastrophe. But, as Maria puts it, "Pete couldn't imagine defending himself every time he went to work for a company he felt had failed him." Last August Burkill took voluntary redundancy and left BA. He was confident he would find another job. But no airline would offer even an interview. "I heard they were wary of all the press attention," Burkill says. "Flying is the only think I'm qualified to do and suddenly, I thought, this was the end of my career. I'd done the right thing, but the rumours hadn't been nipped in the bud soon enough."

Burkill, who was on the dole before his redundancy cheque came through, is still unemployed. Maria's career as an ambulance technician isn't enough to sustain their riverside home, which is now being sold. Despite losing their dream, the couple is philosophical. "When we bought this house we expected to be here forever," Maria says. "Now we're making a completely new start. It's hard. We've lost a lot, but what we will always have is a family."

To order 'Thirty Seconds To Impact' by Peter and Maria Burkill, go to Peterburkill.com

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