Hundreds of passengers had a narrow escape when a British Airways aircraft crash-landed at Heathrow yesterday, missing the runway by 150 metres and only just clearing the airport's perimeter fence. The pilot had reportedly lost all power on his approach.
The Boeing 777 had been flying into London from Beijing as the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, prepared to leave the airport for the start of a five-day tour of China. Flight BA38 lost its rear undercarriage and crashed on grass, skidding 150m (nearly 500ft) to the tip of the southern runway just before 1pm.
All 136 passengers on the half-full flight were evacuated by emergency chutes within minutes of the aircraft coming to a halt. Fire crews arrived at the scene and 13 casualties, including four of the 16 crew members, were treated for minor injuries at the nearby Hillingdon Hospital. Police ruled out the possibility of a link to terrorism.
Witnesses described the aircraft banking sharply to the left as it made its approach, missing the tops of houses by less than 100m.
Several witnesses described how the aircraft "belly-flopped" and slid along the grass as its undercarriage came off.
In gusty but far from extreme weather conditions, the aircraft's wheels sank deep into the soft, wet grass and were wrenched off the main body.
One unidentified airport worker told BBC News that the pilot said he lost all power and had been forced to glide the plane into land.
The Prime Minister's flight, which also had on board John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and the Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, as well as dozens of journalists, was delayed for 55 minutes by the crash. Heathrow airport was briefly closed to all flights, but the northern runway had opened within an hour of the crash.
All short- haul flights out of terminal four were cancelled until early evening. The southern runway remained closed to all flights for several hours, re-opening for departures only after 3pm. Many incoming flights were diverted to other airports. Twelve flights were redirected to Gatwick, four to Luton and three to Stansted, causing major disruption. The cabin crew were immediately praised for their calm and professional handling of the crash. Passenger Jerome Ensinck said: "We were not at all scared. It was only when I walked away from the aircraft that I realised the undercarriage was missing, and we had landed just metres away from the runway.
"The atmosphere on board wasn't that dramatic. We just thought it was a heavy landing. Getting off the plane went extremely smoothly – the air hostesses dealt with it all very professionally. There wasn't too much distress."
BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, praised the flight and cabin crew for doing a "magnificent job", adding that the captain of the aircraft, Peter Burkill, 43, had nearly 20 years experience with BA.
There have already been calls by witnesses to give him "a medal the size of a frying pan".
It was announced last night that an investigation was being carried out by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. David Learmont, of industry magazine Flight International, said: "The only reason for landing so short is that the pilot didn't have the power or speed to make it to the runway.
"We simply don't know what happened, but for now we can surmise there must have been a sudden, major loss of power."