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We must protect aviation safety culture, say pilots on crash anniversary

10 years after British pilots averted a major catastrophe when their aircraft lost all engine power on its approach to Heathrow, pilots are highlighting the importance of thorough crash investigation.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) says that had the Air Accidents Investigation Branch not been given the time and support to carry out a painstaking investigation, we would never have known the cause of the crash or learnt the lessons that have made flights safer in its wake.

On 17th January 2008 the pilots of the British Airways flight 38, known as Speedbird 38, lost power from both engines in the final stages of the approach to London Heathrow Airport. The engines refused to respond to thrust lever inputs and at this point the commercial airliner effectively became a 160-tonne glider. In what was described as a feat of spectacular flying, the crew eased the ailing aircraft 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.

At the time there was much speculation about the cause and who was to blame. The media were full of questions and the public wanted answers. ‘Experts’ came forward pointing to everything from the plane running out of fuel to interference from electronic jammers used by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s passing motorcade. But essentially 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).

Steve Landells is a flight safety specialist at BALPA and said:

“The pilots of Speedbird 38 did a great job in preventing major loss of life. But it was vital that investigators got to the bottom of what caused the crash so that measures could be put in place to prevent something similar happening again, possibly with a much more tragic outcome.

“At the time there was huge pressure to speculate on the cause of the crash and apportion blame. But none of the speculation picked up the real cause.

“It took two years of painstaking investigation, in which the AAIB rigorously tested theory after theory, to find the real cause: ice crystals in the fuel system. If investigators had been rushed, we wouldn’t have discovered the truth and would not have been able to put in place measures that are still safeguarding flights to this day.”

“10 years on from the crash of Speedbird 38, BALPA continues to work to support the open safety culture it has taken decades to create. Our priority is making every single flight safe for passengers and crew. BALPA continues to resist pressure from the media, politicians and families to jump to conclusions in the wake of accidents.

“BALPA’s focus is on protecting 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.”

Notes to editors

The AAIB report on Speedbird 38 can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/aaib-reports/1-2010-boeing-777-236er-g-ymmm-17-january-2008