Split-second decisions that saved the lives of 152 airline passengers

Pilot reveals the heart-stopping moments before flight BA038 crash-landed at Heathrow

Millions of travellers touching down at Heathrow every year experience it: the sweeping vistas of the Thames followed by a slow descent over central London and the suburban rooftops of Hounslow, before an uncomfortably close view of the cars speeding along the A30 and the thud of a runway which seems to appear out of nowhere.

The view from the cockpit is even more spectacular. But for the two pilots of British Airways flight BA038 – which crash-landed just inside the airport's perimeter fence on 17 January 2008 – the route will forever be associated with the terrifying 43 seconds they spent wrestling with unresponsive controls, certain that they and hundreds of others were about to die. Yesterday, the flight's captain Peter Burkill spoke for the first time about the horror he faced in the final minute of the flight from Beijing to London, and the split-second decisions he and his First Officer John Coward were forced to make – decisions which ultimately saved the lives of all 152 people on board.

The final report into the crash by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) was published yesterday. It concluded that a build-up of ice had restricted the flow of fuel to both engines, causing the Boeing 777 aircraft to lose power and begin to fall towards the ground.

The AAIB made nine safety recommendations, some of which address an aircraft's "crashworthiness", or its ability to withstand an accident. Boeing and the engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce have already taken steps to prevent the ice problem from happening again.

But the measured language of the report does not convey the nature of the ordeal experienced by the two pilots, who have been reluctant to talk about their experience until now.

"We were just passing the north side of Hounslow Heath, about two miles from the landing runway, when we became aware there was a problem," Captain Burkill, 45, said. "It became very apparent that we were going to crash and we were not going to make the runway, and as captain it was important I started to react and find a way to make it a non-fatal crash." Recalling the moment that he and his co-pilot noticed that something was seriously wrong, he said: "When he started getting control problems, his first words were something like: 'Pete, what's it doing? I can't get any power.' From that point there was very little communication because I had to leave John flying it and I had to deal with the rest of the panels and switches on my own. I had no time to communicate any decisions with my crew – there were just seconds to react."

He decided to raise the landing flaps on the aircraft in the hope of prolonging their descent by reducing drag from the wings. Later, it was calculated that his quick thinking – combined with First Officer Coward's steady hand at the controls – added an extra 51 metres to the plane's flight before it hit the ground.

Crucially, this meant that the plane avoided colliding with a large antenna near the perimeter fence, which Captain Burkill said "would have resulted in carnage far worse than we experienced". He also made sure that the landing gear was down, so it would take the brunt of the impact.

Five seconds after altering the flaps, Captain Burkill noticed a difference. "The rate of descent decreased to about 1,400 feet a minute, and I could see we were going to clear the buildings. I thought: 'Well, OK, we might just make the road at this point, that's far better.'

"My thoughts were now that from 100 per cent fatalities five seconds before, it had now been reduced to about 50 per cent. We just scraped over the fence by a few metres, and when we impacted the ground it was hard, but a relief as well."

Three seconds before the plane hit the ground on the other side of Heathrow's perimeter fence, 330 metres short of the runway, he sent out a desperate Mayday call. The aircraft was now hurtling wildly across the grass. His voice breaking, Captain Burkill recalled the moment he mentally bid farewell to his wife, Maria: "I then became a passenger – I wasn't a captain at that point. We were now in an aircraft that was sliding along the ground. At that point I did think it might be my time to die, and I said goodbye ... I said goodbye to my wife."

Captain Burkill added: "There was not enough time to pray and I don't think I would have done. I recall expecting to hit something and the aircraft go up in a fireball. I was aware the landing was heavy and I thought the tail would have broken off. I still expected fatalities."

But when the plane finally came to rest it became apparent that casualties on board were limited. In the end only 34 passengers and 12 of the cabin crew suffered minor injuries, the most serious of which was a broken leg. Most of the passengers did not even realise how close they had come to death – some said later they thought it had just been a "hard landing". There had not been time for either of the pilots to tell the cabin crew what was happening, or to instruct the passengers to brace themselves for impact.

The atmosphere on board was so calm that some people even attempted to retrieve their personal items while they were being evacuated – despite the risk of a fire breaking out and igniting the plane's fuel tanks, which it emerged later had been ruptured in the crash.

Captain Burkill's testimony goes some way to dispelling the rumours surrounding his departure from BA last year. It was claimed he had been the target of a smear campaign within the company, with colleagues accusing him of "chickening out" by allowing First Officer Coward to guide the aircraft in to land.

He took voluntary redundancy and has yet to secure another job with an airline – he currently earns money as a motivational speaker – but hopes this will change following the publication of the AAIB report. In September his wife Maria, with whom he has three young sons, said Korean Air had turned him down because his CV showed he had piloted a plane that had crashed.

He and his wife have also written a book, Thirty Seconds to Impact, about their experiences of the crash and the effect it had on their family, which they hope to publish this year.

When asked how he reacted to the plaudits he had received, he replied: "I have never thought of myself as a hero. A hero is someone who voluntarily risks their life. I think my skills as a pilot were tested on that day, and that it's fairer to say I am a confident and able pilot rather than a hero."

The BA crash is not an isolated incident. On 28 November 2008, a Delta Airlines Boeing 777 suffered a similar problem while flying over the US, prompting an investigation by America's National Transportation Safety Board. In both cases, the sudden power loss occurred when the fuel temperature was -2C, suggesting that this is the point at which ice crystals in the fuel are most likely to stick to their surroundings, causing the potentially deadly build-up.

A BA spokesman said: "We welcome this report. The crew did a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances. They displayed the highest levels of professionalism and were awarded the company's highest accolade, the BA safety medal."

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary