British Airways Flight 38 (call sign Speedbird 38) was a scheduled flight from Beijing Capital International Airport which crash landed just short of the runway at its destination, Heathrow Airport, London, on 17 January 2008 after an 8,100 kilometres (4,400 nmi; 5,000 mi) flight. There were no fatalities, but thirteen people sustained injuries. It was the first accident that resulted in a Boeing 777 hull loss.

A September 2008 interim report from the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) found the most likely cause to be icing in the fuel delivery system. This would have restricted fuel flow to the engines as thrust was demanded during the final approach to Heathrow. Because temperatures in flight had not dropped below the 777’s designed operating parameters, the AAIB recommended Boeing and Rolls-Royce take interim measures on Trent 800 powered 777s to reduce the risk of ice restricting fuel delivery, and that European and American regulatory authorities consider the risks to similar aircraft and review their certification criteria accordingly.

In early 2009, Boeing sent an update to aircraft operators, identifying the problem as specific to the Rolls-Royce engine oil-fuel flow heat exchangers. Other aircraft, or Boeing 777 aircraft powered by GE or Pratt and Whitney engines, are not affected by the problem.

Accident

The Boeing 777-236ER aircraft G-YMMM (manufacturer’s serial number 30314, line number 342) repeatedly failed to respond to a demand for increased thrust from both autothrottle and from manual intervention at 720 feet (220 m) and 2 miles (3.2 km) from touchdown. In attempting to maintain the instrument landing system (ILS) glide slope, the autopilot sacrificed speed, reducing airspeed to 108 knots at 200 feet (61 m). The autopilot disconnected at 175 feet (53 m) and the aircraft landed on the grass approximately 1,000 feet (300 m) short of runway 27L. During the impact and short ground roll, the nose gear collapsed, the right main gear separated from the aircraft penetrating the central fuel tank and cabin space, and the left main gear was pushed up through the wing. The aircraft came to rest on the threshold markings at the start of the runway. A significant amount of fuel leaked, but there was no fire. The plane passed approximately 6 metres (20 ft) above passing cars on the A30 and the airport’s Southern Perimeter road. It also passed near a car which had just dropped off the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown. Four crew members and eight passengers were taken to hospital. Eight people received minor injuries, and one passenger received serious injury – concussion and a broken leg.

Captain Peter Burkill said at a press conference that he would not be publicly commenting on the cause of the incident whilst the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigation was in progress. He revealed that Senior First Officer John Coward was flying the aircraft at the time, and that another First Officer was also present. He was later named as Conor Magenis.

John Coward was more forthcoming in a later interview, stating –

“As the final approach started I became aware that there was no power. Suddenly there was nothing from any of the engines, and the plane started to glide”

The 150-tonne aircraft was the first Boeing 777 to be written off in the model”s 12 year history.

Speculation

Initial theories about the cause have focused on a few areas. Although both engines failed to produce increased power when demanded, mechanical engine failure was not regarded as a likely cause, given the very low probability of a simultaneous dual engine failure, and was ruled out by the findings of the February Special Bulletin.

One prominent theory has been a failure of the software or electronics that controls the engines. A story in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday 19 January quotes an unnamed source as stating that the Engine Pressure Ratio gauge had failed, and that an automated alarm that should have alerted the pilots to the drop in engine power failed to actuate. A failure in the electronic system of the 777 aircraft has been put forward as a probable culprit of the accident. According to a news report, an electronic glitch in the computerised engine-control systems may have disrupted the connection between automated and manual controls and the two jet engines. But again this was ruled out by the findings of the Special Bulletin. Speculation that radio interference from the Prime Minister”s motorcade was responsible for the accident was also eliminated as a cause.

A second area of speculation centers on the fuel supply. If the cause is fuel starvation, fuel was available but could not reach the engines. Water or debris in the fuel tanks could have cut off the engines from their supply, resulting in power loss. It is unclear, however, whether a fuel supply issue would have produced simultaneous engine failures or more likely would have produced symptoms in one engine before the other. However, according to the 24 January update, the engines lost power eight seconds apart – the right engine approximately three seconds after more power was requested, and eight seconds later the left engine also lost power. Accumulation of ice in the fuel tanks, clogging fuel supply lines in the final stages of the flight, was the subject of closer scrutiny, and while initially ruled out (as both engines were still producing above-idle but significantly diminished thrust, according to a report), this is currently being investigated as a possible cause.

Some sources indicate that the crew declared an emergency to the control tower before landing. David Learmount of Flight International speculated that to land in just 350-400 metres, the aircraft must have been near stalling when it touched down. Dr Thurai Rahulan and Dr Guy Gratton, both academics, speculated that the weather conditions made wind shear a possible cause. The METAR in force at the time indicated that the wind was forecast to gust according to ICAO criteria for wind reporting, but was not gusting at the time and wind shear had not been reported. The possibility of a bird strike was raised, but there were no sightings or radar reports of birds. Consequently, speculation had focused on electronics and fuel supply issues. In response to speculation that the cause of the accident was ice in the centre fuel tank, United Airlines and American Airlines took precautionary steps to ensure the quality of the fuel used in their aircraft.

Initial response

Statements were issued by several organisations affiliated with the airport and airline. Immediately after the crash British Airways released this statement:

A British Airways Boeing 777 aircraft has been involved in an incident today at Heathrow airport. The aircraft was operating as flight BA38 from Beijing.

The London Ambulance Service stated that three fast response cars, nine ambulances and several officers were sent to the scene to assess the casualties. Those injured were taken to the nearby Hillingdon hospital.

Soon after the crash, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced that they were aware of the incident and that the “incident will be investigated by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport and the CAA is offering assistance to all organisations involved.” Initial comment from David Learmount, a Flight International analyst, was that “The aircraft had either a total or severe power loss and this occurred very late in the final approach because the pilot did not have time to tell air traffic control or passengers.”

Willie Walsh, the British Airways Chief Executive released a statement praising the actions of the “flight and cabin crew [who] did a magnificent job and safely evacuated all of the 136 passengers. The captain of the aircraft is one of our most experienced and has been flying with us for nearly 20 years. Our crew are trained to deal with these situations.” He also praised the fire, ambulance and police services.

BAA Limited:

Incident at Heathrow, We can confirm that flight BA38, a Boeing 777 arriving from Beijing, carried out an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport today at 12:42. Heathrow’s emergency services attended the scene and passengers were immediately evacuated and taken to a reception centre at the airport. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch is attending the scene.

Heathrow Airport’s southern runway was closed immediately after the incident but has now re-opened for take-offs only. The northern runway is operating for arriving aircraft.

Passengers flying from Heathrow today should contact their airline regarding the status of their flight. Some arriving aircraft are being diverted to other airports, this is being done on a flight by flight basis.

Disruption

As a consequence of the emergency services deployment to the accident all flights were halted for a short time. When operations resumed, many long-haul outbound flights were either delayed or cancelled and all short haul flights were cancelled for the rest of the day. Some inbound flights were delayed and 24 flights were diverted to Gatwick, Luton or Stansted. Heathrow Airport received dispensation from the Department of Transport to operate some night flights. On the following day (18 January) a total of 113 short haul flights were cancelled due to crews and aircraft being out of position.

Awards

All sixteen crew were awarded the BA Safety Medal for their performance during the accident. The medal is British Airways” highest honour.

Useful Links

BBC Pictures of the Accident

BBC Eyewitness Reports

Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network#

List of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft