The true story of Flight 038: Remarkable landing which saved 152 lives – by those who were there

At 600ft up, and with both engines gone, all that stood between a BA jet and disaster was the skill of senior first officer John Coward. Here, passengers, crew and eyewitnesses tell of an extraordinary escape
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The Independent Online

BA038 Beijing: ON TIME

Heathrow information screens

Cabin crew, seats for landing.

First officer's voice, on approach to Heathrow

The aircraft was banking to the left and it was coming in very low over the surrounding houses. The plane was significantly lower than it would normally be. You could see the pilot was desperate, trying to get the plane down.

Recreational Pilot Neil Jones, as Boeing 777 approached Heathrow at 200mph

It was lurching from side to side and had one wing really high at one point. I turned to my eight-year-old daughter and said, 'Oh my God, that plane don't look right'.

Gemma Allen, 21, lives in Dockwell Close, directly under the flight path

I saw the flaps going up and down and something was obviously wrong. The pilot was trying to readdress the plane but it was really shaky.

Howard Zhong, Passenger

The cloud cover meant I did not see the ground until we were very low. Houses were the size of shoeboxes and cars as big as matchboxes. I remember thinking 'We only just cleared that fence' as the grass of the runway unfolded beneath us.

Gus Macmillan, Melbourne-based musician and composer

I could hear the undercarriage come out and the next moment the plane just dropped. The wheels came out and went for touchdown, and the next moment we just dropped. I couldn't tell you how far.

Paul Venter, Passenger

I looked out of the window about three or four seconds before the aircraft landed and I knew we were going to be in serious trouble. Normally when an aircraft is about to land it comes in at about a 20 or 30 degree angle. We were more like 45 degrees and going at a furious pace. I just knew something was going to go disastrously wrong and I just froze in my seat.

Mark Rozycki, Passenger

I spotted the plane coming in with its nose really high in the air. I thought that doesn't look right – the nose was just so high. All of a sudden the front turned down and it came crashing down on its back wheels. The landing gear immediately collapsed and the plane started sliding on its belly. Bits of the wing and engine casing came flying off. It skidded a bit and came to a stop on the runway. I expected to see flames but thankfully there weren't any.

Richard Croghan, 29, of Brentford, works for Sixt car rental at Hatton Cross

Just as we touched down, a piece of debris punctured the wall and slammed into my leg... It was the first indication that anything was wrong ... My disbelief at the sound of rushing air through the hole was soon overtaken by a sickening crunch as the plane hit the ground hard, and all too quickly we had stopped.

Gus Macmillan

It then bounced, skidded violently for 400 yards and spun around. Two giant wheels were ripped off and part of the wrecked undercarriage tore into the left wing. It finally came to rest on the edge of the runway, with wreckage strewn everywhere. The pilot asked, 'Would all passengers please evacuate as soon as possible?' The oxygen masks came down but they weren't any use. It was just a matter of getting away as quickly as possible. There were a lot of pale faces, everyone was shocked and stunned. There was absolute silence.

Mark Rozycki

When everything came to a standstill, I looked out of the window and the undercarriage was gone and the plane was on its belly.

Paul Venter

All the lights went off and the oxygen masks came down. There was lots of smoke in the cabin and everyone was in a panic. The two stewardesses were very calm and told everyone to sit down.

Howard Zhong

The passenger beside me was staring in disbelief at the hole in the side of the plane and asked if I was OK. My leg, I could tell, was not right, and as I rose from my seat I knew that I'd taken a hit. I hobbled out to the aisle, using the seats as crutches. There was lots of yelling. The cabin crew were disarming doors and activating the inflatable slides. People instinctively grabbed for hand luggage but were told to leave it... I approached the slide with trepidation and let people know I was injured, jumping as best I could on to my backside and sliding the surprisingly short distance to the ground. The woman from the seat next to me was looking after me now, and she lent me her shoulder for support ... We hobbled 10 metres or so before she realised the task was beyond her. One of the Frenchmen from the seat behind me held me up and we staggered across the muddy grass to an emergency vehicle. He was, I realised, the same guy who had been kicking my seat for the whole flight...

Gus Macmillan

It was all over so quickly, I didn't really have time to think about it or even to take my shoes off before I jumped down the chute.

Peng Gao, Passenger

'That can't be real smoke,' you think. 'Those people tumbling down those escape chutes can't be real people.' Then you realise that they are. And that, but for a quirk of fate or air traffic control, they might be you.

Robert Hardman, 'Daily Mail', on board a plane, 600 yards away

The moment I walked away I realised the complete undercarriage of the plane was missing, that we had missed the runway by 100 metres and that the wheels were lying scattered over the entire area.

Jerome Ensinck, Passenger

I stretched out in the back of the airport vehicle and the woman from the seat beside me offered me her jumper and her hand. I took both gratefully. An air hostess was with us and assessed the situation. We rolled up my jeans. My shin had blown up to resemble one of Popeye's forearms. I knew it wasn't good but I also knew it could be a lot worse. I looked back over my shoulder and there were fire crews dousing the engines with foam. It looked completely surreal, like someone else's crash. The undercarriage was 50 metres behind the plane, upside down on the grass, a clump of eight wheels pointing skyward.

Gus Macmillan

We're talking about one of the most advanced aircraft in the world, operated by one of the most safety-conscious airlines in the world, flying into one of the safest airports in the world. It's quite a surprise.

Kieran Daly, of 'Flight International' magazine

I texted my family: 'You're not going to believe this but I've been in a plane crash, but I'm OK. I think my leg is broken'... From the babble of the CB radio we learned that, amazingly, there were no major injuries. I kept asking where the ambulance was. My mouth was dry and I was getting nauseous. I was in shock. I was taken to hospital and there I waited in a cubicle like every other emergency patient, except that I had a policeman as escort and curious medical staff wanting details of my escape. After a few hours waiting to be X-rayed and diagnosed with a fractured fibula, a relatively minor injury, it all seemed to have faded from reality. That was until the newsreader on the 10pm News said: 'They don't come much closer than this.' I have to agree. I'm a lucky, lucky person.

Gus Macmillan

This man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan.

Unnamed airport worker, about the pilot

I am proud to say that every member of the team played their part expertly, displaying the highest standards of skill and professionalism. No one more so than my senior first officer John Coward, who was the handling pilot in the final stages of the flight and did the most remarkable job.

Captain Peter Burkill, pilot of the plane

These are ordinary people who have done an extraordinary thing. They were in good shape considering they had just walked away from death and saved 152 lives. They were taken away for debriefing immediately after the crash and quizzed until the early evening. After that they just went for a curry.

Jim McAuslan, head of pilots' union Balpa

I turned on Sky News today and there was a press conference on. People were saying that John was a hero and he'd landed the plane. I thought, 'He didn't mention that to me.'

Myrene Coward, mother of senior first officer John Coward