Last Thursday, 152 people (16 crew and 136 passengers), in addition to a significant number of people living in Hounslow, narrowly escaped death when a British Airways flight from Beijing (BA038) was forced into an emergency landing at Heathrow airport.

Several things struck me about this incident and the aftermath:

  • After a phone call to update me on all the domestic news and gossip, my wife somehow negated to impart this tidbit of useful and relevant information. I hung up and turned on the TV news to be staggered by images of the wrecked fuselage of a British Airways jumbo jet lying of the fringes of the runway, 15 miles from my house, surrounded by foam, slides deployed with 18 fire appliances surrounding the scene.
  • As I was flying from Belfast into Heathrow the following day, I consulted the BMI website which curiously maintained flights would be subject to delays and cancellation following, in a slight understatement, the ‘incident at Heathrow’. Funnily, enough, the AAIB agrees with me and defines an accident as ‘an occurrence during the period of operation of an aircraft where the aircraft incurs damage’.
  • A man from Oxford who walked away with his life would have quite liked British Airways to provide him with a cup of tea followed by some counselling.
  • Another couple thought they had just had ‘a bumpy landing’ and therefore didn’t require any tea and biscuits. In fact, these Aussie backpackers were just delighted to get their baggage back without queuing at the carousel and to receive a complimentary return ticket for the Heathrow Express.
  • A surreal moment boarding the flight at Belfast, picking up a newspaper with the stricken 777 plastered all over the front page.
  • British Airways’ decision to parade the pilot, co-pilot and Julie, your cabin service director, before the world’s press. The BA crew all looked shell-shocked and distinctly uncomfortable. Mind you, so would I, if I was slowly starting to assimilate the events and trying to recover from a near death experience (without a cup of tea). This implied to me that BA were either very keen to get the media off their backs and leave them alone and/or BA are already absolutely certain of the circumstances of the accident and knew for a fact, pilot error was not a possible contributory factor.

Finally, I must confess that I know absolutely nothing about airplanes, fly by wire or wind shear. I am also totally ignorant of the size of the pigeon population of South West London and possible deficiencies in the quality of Chinese aircraft fuel.

However, if the AAIB investigation subsequently discovers, in the coming months, that the co-pilot had successfully brought a 100 ton aircraft into a crash landing, having lost power to both engines, and miraculously managed to clear the perimeter fence by 10 feet, I will be truly amazed at the skill of the pilots.

If the investigation shows that, following a catastrophic, non-reproducible computer error, the co-pilot somehow had the foresight to raise the flaps to somehow bring the aircraft down on the grass to stop it within 300 feet instead of landing on the concrete runway where it surely would have exploded with complete loss of life, wouldn’t that be the most staggering and heroic feat ever ?