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Surviving the unimaginable

by Steve Landells BALPA Flight Safety Specialist

What can you do in 48 seconds? It’s not even enough time to make a cup of tea or brush your teeth. But 48 seconds is how long the pilots of Speedbird 38 had to avert a major catastrophe. 

All pilots train time and again for engine failure, with the hope that it is something we’ll never experience in real life. But on 17th January 2008, the pilots of British Airways flight call signed Speedbird 38, lost power from both engines in the final stages of the approach to Heathrow Airport. 

The flight crew became aware of the thrust problems when they were only around 500ft above the ground and 48 seconds from touchdown. The engines refused to respond to thrust lever inputs and at this point their commercial airliner effectively became a 160-tonne glider. You may think that the pilots were simply passengers from that point but in actual fact the actions and decisions they took over the next few seconds had a profound effect on the futures of all those on board.

In a situation like this you might predict a catastrophic crash that could kill all on board, and if the aircraft failed to make it to the airfield, many on the ground as well. But 10 years ago, after what was described as spectacular flying, Speedbird 38 limped over the Heathrow boundary and crash landed just short of the runway. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair. But miraculously there were no fatalities and only one person with serious injuries. 

I had just got airborne out of Heathrow, in another 777, and whilst I don’t remember the exact words on the ACARS message, none of us on the flight deck was left in any doubt that a very serious event had occurred. On landing, further details came through and the news pictures had the obvious effect of getting us to ask, “what happened?” 

With no fatalities and the accident investigation underway, attention soon turned to speculation about what had happened, and then on to who was to blame. After any accident pressure to jump to conclusions can be immense as the public, media and politicians all clamber for answers. In this case it wasn’t long before several theories, stated with such certainty by the numerous ‘experts’ the TV channels managed to dig up, were banded around.

Some claimed the lack of a fire after impact meant the aircraft had run out of fuel. Others suggested it was something to do with an electronic jammer, as the Prime Minister’s motorcade had been passing the threshold of the runway at the time! None of this speculation was from the people who would eventually get to the bottom of what had happened: the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

The AAIB had said they would release initial findings within 48 hours, followed by a more detailed, but still preliminary, report within 30 days. However, the actual full and final report was not released until 2010 after two years of painstaking investigation. 

And that in itself is an important lesson that must be learnt and is why you will never see BALPA speculating on the cause of a crash without knowing the facts. We do have a duty to help inform and explain what we do know in these instances, but we always resist the conjecture and guesswork that can distract from the real issues and prevent investigators getting to the truth.

If the AAIB had not been given the time and support to carry out this rigorous investigation we wouldn’t know that Speedbird 38 hadn’t run out of fuel, and it wasn’t brought down by its proximity to Gordon Brown. In fact, the investigation discovered that under very specific circumstances ice crystals could form in the fuel and accumulate at the Fuel Oil Heat Exchanger which would eventually clog up and starve the engines of fuel. 

Learning the true cause of this accident has probably saved countless lives. Following the accident report 18 safety recommendations that aim to prevent a similar incident ever happening again, were put forward. And that’s what’s so important about the safety culture in aviation where by learning lessons from accidents so that others can be avoided, is the priority. 

Pilots understand the importance of learning from even the smallest of incidents. The industrywide culture that encourages pilots to report incidents freely and does not look to apportion blame or criminalise mistakes, is key. 

After accidents it is common for the media and members of public call for answers. Politicians have in the past pushed for access to accident data before the completion of reports by the AAIB. 

But for pilots the priority is making every single flight safe for passengers and crew. That’s why we have supported the AAIB and resisted such calls. 

BALPA continues to work hard to protect the trusted international agreements between specialist accident investigators and pilots that ensure the important work of the AAIB in preventing future accidents is not short circuited. 

10 years on from the crash of Speedbird 38, pilots value the lessons we learn from the past and continue to support the open safety culture it has taken decades to create.

IMAGE ATTRIBUTION: By Marc-Antony Payne (Via email) CC BY 3.0 or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons