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BA jet's narrow escape after take-off from wrong runway

The commander of the British Airways Boeing 777 observed that the runway ahead looked "very short" as the plane prepared for take off from the Caribbean holiday island of St Kitts. Meanwhile, back among the 87 passengers on the shuttle flight bound for Gatwick via Antigua, were sitting two very anxious men: the local BA airport duty manager and station engineer.

Sitting together in aisle 10, they knew that the jet was about to take off from the wrong section of tarmac. The station engineer pulled off his seat belt and dashed forward in an attempt to alert the flight crew that "we are in the wrong position" – but had to sit down in row four as the plane soared into the air.

Back in the cockpit the co-pilot was at the controls, making his first take off from the Robert L Bradshaw International Airport. He could see the grass thundering past directly under his craft's nose, seconds after clearing the ground. Air traffic controllers estimated the plane took off just 300m from the end of the paved surface.

An Air Accident Investigation Report (AAIB) into the "serious incident" last September has found that the BA plane took off from a section of runway that was not long enough for the type of aircraft.

The incident occurred after the crew mistook which taxiway the aircraft should have been on, resulting in the jet ending up at an unauthorised point for take off. The plane was left with about 1,220m of take-off room – 695m less than if it had departed from the correct intersection.

According to the report, the 39-year-old co-pilot noticed something was wrong when he saw he had run out of runway below. "At this time he realised something was not right and realised that, although the aircraft was airborne, the end of the runway was closer than normal," the AAIB said.

The report found the authorities at the airport, which was renovated in 2006, had not installed any taxiway or holding point signs on the airfield at St Kitts. It also found that the trainee air traffic control officer on duty did not inform the flight crew they were at the wrong intersection.

A spokesman for BA, which had been operating the scheduled service, said it had strengthened safety procedures to new destination airfields.