The Amsterdam Disaster: London prepared for air emergency: Christian Wolmar examines how the authorities would cope with a disaster over the capital, which has Britain's busiest airport

Click to follow
THE Amsterdam disaster immediately raises the spectre of a similar disaster in the United Kingdom. As Britain's busiest airport, Heathrow has 1,000 aircraft movements each day, with planes following set landing and take-off patterns virtually all the time.

Heathrow has three runways in use but two, 27R and 27L which can be used either in an east-west or west-east direction are in use all but 2 per cent of the time, as the third runway is for emergencies. The aircraft stack up at four points around London, but are restricted to two main approaches, from the east and the west. While the western approach is over a relatively sparsely inhabited area of Berkshire, the eastern approach takes aircraft along the Thames over the City and south of the West End.

Pilots fix on to the Instrument Landing System at around 3,000ft, nine miles from the airport - right over west London on the approach from the west - to allow them to descend at the normal 1,000ft for every three miles.

The Civil Aviation Authority says there is a 'gentlemen's agreement' to alternate between the two approaches. 'They change from landing to take off on one runway, and vice versa on the other at 3pm every day to give people underneath a break,' a spokeswoman said.

For take-offs, there are about half a dozen routes in use, depending on where the aircraft is headed. They avoid central London but any aircraft in trouble would be likely to head for the descent flight path, and it is people underneath these that are most at risk. However, the people killed in Amsterdam were some 10 miles away from the airport and therefore virtually anybody in London near the flight paths faces an equal, albeit very small, risk.

The most recent big crash near Heathrow was in 1972 when a BEA Trident on its way to Brussels crashed, on waste ground four miles from the airport, after the pilot had a heart attack and mistakes were made by the flight crew, causing the aircraft to stall. All 118 on board were killed. The plane narrowly missed the A30, just cleared power lines and then crashed near a roundabout.

The London Emergency Services Liaison Panel meets every two months to co-ordinate the response of the emergency services in the event of a catastrophe like the Amsterdam crash. The committee - which links the police, other emergency services, and the London boroughs and hospitals - has developed a detailed emergency plan.

Martin Coffey, assistant chief officer of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, said: 'If a major emergency like the Amsterdam crash happened here, we would require about 20 pump appliances and various others such as a turntable ladder, a damage control tender and a command vehicle. We are well prepared for this type of emergency. We have regular rehearsals for such things as airplane accidents, as well as train crashes and major chemical incidents.'

An inner cordon would be set up around the worst affected area, with the fire brigade in charge. A wider second cordon, which would include the command vehicles, would be established with the police controlling exit and entry.

The approaches to most provincial airports in Britain mostly avoid large built-up areas, though there are exceptions, such as Manchester, where two aircraft in the past 35 years have crashed on built-up areas. In March 1957, 22 people were killed and houses demolished in Shadow Moss Road, Whythenshawe, when a Viscount turbo-prop crashed immediately outside Ringway airport, and in June 1967, 78 were killed when a British Midland Airways Argonaut returning from Majorca hit waste ground in Stockport, south of Manchester.

A pilot told the Independent that the airport which causes the most difficulties is Luton, where a sharp left turn is required at about 500ft, to prevent noise affecting houses near the end of the runway. He said: 'You have to go into a steep bank but it is no particular problem, unless, of course, an engine went out.'

DUBLIN - In Ireland the issue of the flight path has become a political one because residents of a housing estate in Dublin are worried they are 'sitting ducks for an accident' because of the failure over more than 20 years of Dublin Corporation to provide back-up power for rooftop beacons, writes Alan Murdoch.

Residents of the seven 16-storey tower blocks at Ballymun in North Dublin, the tallest residential buildings in Ireland, are to stage a mock funeral on Thursday to highlight the risks. 'We're staging a funeral because we say housing and safety issues are dead in Ballymun, so let Dublin Corporation bury them,' a community activist, Sean O'Cionnaith, said.

The safety of the 20,000 tenants in the towers and neighbouring blocks has been raised repeatedly in recent years, whenever a power failure or industrial dispute has led to the beacons being extinguished. Former residents of the flats say the issue of air safety and the beacons has been the subject of correspondence between tenants' bodies and local authorities over many years.