Hero pilot saves hundreds of lives

“Hero” pilot Peter Burkill spoke for the first time today about the dramatic moment his plane crashed at Heathrow.

Addressing a packed press conference, the captain and his co-pilot John Coward and cabin director Sharon Eaton-Mercer were given a heroes’ welcome.

But after the applause and cheers died down, Mr Burkill, a married father-of-three from Worcester, revealed that it was in fact Mr Coward who was at the helm at the time of the crisis.

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Heroes: Captain Peter Burkill, centre, at the press conference today with co-pilot John Coward, who landed the plane, and crew member Sharon Eaton-Mercer

A preliminary accident investigation into the crash today revealed the plane’s engines failed two miles out from the runway.

Reliving the tense moments, Mr Burkill praised the professionalism of the crew and the calmness of the passengers but refused to comment on the cause of the crash while air accident investigations continue.

“We had an outstanding team on board yesterday,” he said.

He went on to thank the crew who demonstrated “the highest standards of skill and professionalism” and he also praised the passengers and the emergency services.

“As British Airways flight and cabin crew, we are trained on a regular basis to deal with emergency situations,” he said.

“We have procedures to follow and everyone knows their role.

“Flying is about teamwork, and we had an outstanding team on board yesterday.

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Floodlights bathe the Boeing 777 in light today, as investigators continue to examine the plane

He went on to reveal that his senior first officer John Coward, who he shared a curry with last night, had been the handling pilot for the final approach.

“As captain of the aircraft, I’m proud to say that every member of my team played their part expertly yesterday, displaying skill and professionalism, no-one more so than my senior first officer John Coward, who was the handling pilot on the final approach, and did the most remarkable job.

“My first officer Conor Magenis also continually assisted.

“I want to pay tribute to the cabin crew, and the cabin service director Sharron Eaton-Mercer, who carried out the evacuation of the passengers with speed, efficiency and care, some incurring minor injuries in the process.

“It was typical of her selflessness that she took time to check that we on the flight deck were all right before going down the chute herself.

“I want to thank the passengers for their calmness and good sense under extremely unfamiliar circumstances.

“I wish those who suffered injuries a speedy and complete recovery.

“I also want to mention the fire crews, ambulance service and police for the huge part they played in dealing with this incident.

“As you know the Air Accident Investigation Branch is carrying out an investigation, so it is not possible to for me to make any public comment on the circumstances of what happened.

As the press conference came to an end and applause once more broke out, Miss Eaton-Mercer fought back tears.

peter burkillHero: But Peter Burkill revealed his colleague John Coward was actually the man at the controls

The focus of the investigation into the cause of the Heathrow crash turned today to the aeroplane’s electrics after it was revealed that Boeing aircraft have a history of onboard fires causing power failure.

Boeing 777s have been involved in at least 12 serious incidents when electrical systems have overheated, it has been reported.

On four occasions “major damage” was caused to power panels on at least four occassions, it has been reported.

Although investigators have refused to speculate on the cause of the crash, they are looking at the possibility that a fire knocked out the plane’s electrics.

Dozens of experts, including a team from Boeing, are scrutinising the aircraft in an attempt to pinpoint the fault.

The hero at the helm when the plane came down – Captain Peter Burkill – dubbed ‘Peter the Perfect Pilot’ – was quizzed for five hours before taking his crew for a curry to celebrate saving 151 lives.

Mr Burkill said he and his crew, who are recovering from their ordeal at a secret London location, were “all fine”.

So far today more than 50 flights from Heathrow have been cancelled.

Tt emerged today that the Department for Transport’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which is carrying out the inquiry, warned about electrical overheating on the 777 in a report published last April.

It followed an accident in February when a pilot on a United Airlines 777 abandoned a take-off after it lost one of its main power control units — known as a bus.

The plane was evacuated after smoke was seen coming from the plane.

An investigation revealed “extensive heat and fire damage” to an electrical panel which had melted and vaporised circuits.

The report went on: “There was evidence that molten metal had dripped down onto the insulation blankets beneath this panel.”

It emerged that similar incidents on 777s had happened 11 times previously since the model was introduced in 1996.

The report said the AAIB was working with the US National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing and the manufacturer of the power panel “to try to determine the cause of the failures within the electrical power system”.

Investigators are expected to reveal their initial findings on the Heathrow accident tomorrow afternoon.

Drivers watched in horror yesterday as the jet cleared the airport’s perimeter fence by just a few feet and smashed onto grass hundreds of yards short of the runway.

The impact tore off part of its landing gear and the plane skidded across the grass on its belly, gouging deep tracks, as the rain-softened soil helped slow it down.

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boeingDozens of investigators are trying to determine the cause of the Boeing 777 crash

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The dramatic scene at Heathrow yesterday after a BA Boeing 777 suffered engine failure and crash landed

Both wings and an engine were badly damaged before it finally slid to a halt on the very tip of the runway.

As fire engines raced to the scene, then smothered the shattered plane with foam, cabin crew deployed the emergency evacuation chutes and passengers slid to safety.

Incredibly, just 13 of those on board were hurt, only one seriously.

Last night, as the fuselage of BA 38 still lay across Heathrow’s south runway, Capt Burkhill and his crew were praised for their calmness, expertise and bravery.

One passenger on the flight from Beijing said it was a miracle everyone had escaped with their lives.

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crashed planeWounded beast: Emergency crews swarm around the crashed plane, the twisted metal of its broken wing clearly visible behind one of the emergency chutes

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Plane crash graphic

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Another told of the terror as screaming passengers ran through a smoke- filled cabin, fearing they would die before they reached the emergency exits.

He said: “People started screaming, kids were crying, we thought we were going to die. We thought the plane was going to blow up.”

The drama caused major disruption at Heathrow with nearly 100 flights, most short haul, being cancelled and dozens diverted to other airports.

A plane carrying Prime Minister Gordon Brown on a five-day visit to China and India was also delayed.

It was on the tarmac, waiting to take off, when the BA flight came down a few hundred yards away.

Gordon Brown paid tribute to the “calmness and professionalism of the British Airways staff and Captain” in the face of potential disaster.

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Freewheeling: Landing gear was torn off on impact
Moment of terror: Passengers slide down the escape chute fearing an explosion

Last night the investigation of the 12.40pm drama was considering the possibility that a flock of Canada geese had been sucked into the jet’s engines.

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Crash planeSo close to disaster: The stricken plane rests on its belly, its broken wing tilting upwards and the remains of its torn-off landing gear in the foreground

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So sudden and dramatic was the emergency that Captain Burkhill did not have time to put out a radio alert or even warn his 136 passengers to assume the “brace” position.

One airport worker said the captain, who has been with the airline for nearly 20 years, told him he had lost all power.

“He told me the aircraft shut down,” the worker said, “He glided it across and managed to get the nose up.

It happened very close to coming into land. He managed to get it into the airport and it skidded on to the grass.

“Everything was normal and there was no warning or anything and then suddenly ‘boom’, the power’s gone, everything shut down.

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Emergency: Firemen douse the plane

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“Its a miracle, this man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan. He’s done a fantastic job, he really has.”

One passenger said the pilot had “looked very pale” after leaving the plane.

Neil Jones, who has a pilot’s licence, said he had seen the plane making a “very, very unusual approach” to Heathrow.

He said: “The engine noise sounded louder than normal and it was that that first attracted my attention.

“The aircraft was banking to the left and it was coming in very low over the surrounding houses. The plane was significantly lower than it would normally be.

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The front wheels of the airliner are seen strewn across the grass bordering the runway

“You could see the pilot was desperate, trying to get the plane down. The aircraft hit the grass and there was a lot of dirt. The pilot was struggling to keep the plane straight. I think he did a great job.”

Taxi driver John Rowland said: “It looked as though it was just missing the roof of my cab…so low you would think you could lean out the window and touch it.

“It passed over the perimeter fence at 15 feet before it crashed. Debris was flying everywhere, there was an enormous bang and it skidded sideways.

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The plane’s wing appears to be partially ripped from the body (click to enlarge)

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“It hit the grass and the undercarriage went into the wings and the wings tilted up.”

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh praised the flight crew but refused to speculate on what happened.

He said: “I would like to pay tribute to the crew of the BA38 led by Captain Peter Burkill.

“The flight crew showed great courage and professionalism in landing the aircraft safely.

“All of the crew did a fantastic job evacuating the passengers. They are all heroes and everyone at British Airways is very proud of them.”

The 13 injured, including four crew, were treated at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge. One had a broken leg, but the others had only minor injuries, mostly whiplash.

Seven of the group are British and three Chinese. The nationalities of the other three were not known last night.

The investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch will question all those involved and check the plane’s ‘black box’ flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

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Engine failure: Firefighters attend to the plane wreck beside a smashed engine

The Boeing 777 was launched in June 1995 and is considered an extremely reliable aircraft with an almost impeccable safety record. It is powered by two Rolls Royce engines but should still fly if one fails.

Its landing gear is the largest of any commercial aircraft.

BA has 43 777s and there are 667 in operation around the world.

• Thousands of passengers hoping to fly from Heathrow this weekend could see their travel plans ruined because of yesterday’s crash landing.

A spokesman for BAA warned last night that it was unclear when flights would be back to normal because investigations were still continuing on the tarmac.

But disruption is likely to continue for several days at least, with little hope that the airport – one of the world’s busiest and already blighted by congestion – will quickly return to full working capacity.

Yesterday, hundreds of flights were disrupted amid chaotic scenes at Terminal 4.

The southern runway was closed when the stricken flight landed at 12.42pm. Two hours later, at 2.45pm, it began operating at a limited capacity for take-offs only.

The terminal’s northern runway was also operating for arrivals only. All British Airways’ short-haul flights out of Heathrow and some long-haul flights were cancelled.

By 6pm, 222 flights had been struck off the normal flying schedule of 1,300, while 24 incoming flights were diverted to airports including Gatwick, Luton and Stansted.

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