The captain of the stricken Boeing 777 aircraft which crash-landed at Heathrow two years ago revealed Wednesday that he had been convinced he was going to die when the plane hit the ground.
As the British Airways jet, descending far faster than normal, crashed down within the airport perimeter but still a quarter of a mile short of the runway it skidded out of control at high speed, said Captain Peter Burkill in an interview with the BBC.
"We were now in an aircraft on the ground that was sliding uncontrollably and at that point I thought I was going to die so I said goodbye to my wife," said Captain Burkill. He added that he was haunted every day by the accident, and had retired from the company last year.
“I always think about it — as well as my wife — it will probably never leave me.”
An official accident report into the incident, published Wednesday, reveals that the drama happened when the plane lost power after ice restricted the supply of fuel to both of its engines — a risk which investigators said was "unrecognized at the time".
The freak situation occurred after Flight 38 experienced an unusually cold flight from Beijing on Jan. 17, 2008.
Captain Burkill described the moment — just 43 seconds away from touchdown — that he realized the plane had lost power as he was descending towards Heathrow airport.
"It naturally became apparent that we were going to crash and we were not going to make the runway," he said.
“My view of that accident from that point was that we were going to start descending very quickly — about an 1,800-foot descent rate — and I could see the impact point was going to be around about the Hatton Cross area which includes catering buildings, a Tube station and a petrol station.”
Captain Burkill said the priority was to get the plane over any buildings and away from the Heathrow perimeter road.
He handed the controls to his co-pilot John Coward while he raised the plane’s flaps to reduce the drag from the wings, in a bid to slow the rate of descent.
“When I realized we were coming in far too steeply with the loss of power and we were heading towards the buildings, I had to reduce the drag, and as we were going to crash on ground, I needed the (landing) gear,” he said.
“The gear was going to take most of the brunt of the crash so I daren’t raise that up.”
Luckily for all on board the landing gear did absorb much of the impact before it broke, and the plane remained the right way up, sliding 1,220 feet before coming to rest. Thirty-four passengers and 12 crew of the 152 people on board suffered minor injuries, mainly to the back and neck.
The left main landing gear collapsed and the right separated from the plane. All the passengers were safely evacuated, with one passenger breaking a leg.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch report recounts how Captain Burkill tried to increase engine thrust as he and his crew noticed the plane losing speed, but there was no response from the engines. They put out a Mayday call three seconds before touchdown.
There was not enough time for the flight crew to brief the cabin crew or to issue a command for passengers to brace themselves, the report said.
There was no fire but there was a significant fuel leak, while there was also an oxygen leak caused by part of the landing gear damaging the passenger oxygen bottles.
The AAIB said some passengers attempted to retrieve personal items during the evacuation.
The report concludes that the engine fuel flow restriction was caused by a build-up of ice within the fuel system. The ice had probably formed from water that occurred naturally in the fuel, and the blockage occurred when fuel temperatures were at a “sticky range” when ice crystals were most likely to adhere to their surroundings.