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

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

By Chris Green
Wednesday 10 February 2010 01:10

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."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments