Breeze Blows Flames onto Aircraft

 As firefighters well know, fire is a capricious enemy, in that how it evolves very often depends on something else that is fickle and difficult to predict—the WIND.

A simple matter of how the aircraft stops with respect to the wind, albeit so slight a wind as to be insignificant from a flying point of view, can determine whether passengers live or die.

A courtesy maneuver to leave the runway clear for other aircraft doubtless increased the number of fatalities in the case we now describe.

The first production Boeing 737, “short to medium range” airliner, was delivered to Lufthansa in 1968 and after a slow start became the most prolific airliner in the Western world.

British Airtours, a subsidiary of British Airways, was using one for a routine charter flight from Manchester in England to Corfu in Greece on August 22, 1985.

Virtually full, with 131 passengers and 6 crewmembers, the 737 was already engaged in its takeoff run with the copilot as the handling pilot, when there was a loud thump or thud. Assuming it was a tire blow out, the captain ordered, “STOP”, and at the same time pulled back the throttles and engaged reverse thrust. After having attained a maximum speed of 126 knots, the aircraft began to slow, with the captain checking that the spoilers had deployed.

Again thinking it must have been a tire blow out, the captain told the copilot not to “hammer the brakes”, in order to limit the damage to the landing gear, and anyway there was plenty of runway left as the decision to abort the takeoff had been taken well before V1. The copilot, who had been applying maximum braking, duly eased up on them.

As the groundspeed fell to 85 knots some 9 seconds after the “thud”, the captain called the tower to inform them that they were abandoning the takeoff. Almost immediately, there was a fire warning for the left hand engine. The tower then confirmed there was a lot of fire, and that the fire appliances were on their way.

With the speed of the aircraft below 50 knots, the captain queried the tower as to whether an evacuation seemed necessary.

The controller replied

I would do via the starboard side.

This was merely 20 seconds after the thud and 25 seconds before the aircraft came to a final stop. Some 6 seconds later and 14 seconds before the aircraft eventually stopped, the captain turned the aircraft to the right so it could exit the runway via “link Delta”. Then, before the aircraft came to a complete halt, he told the cabin crew to evacuate from the starboard side.

However, pooled fuel on the ground was burning, and flames were already lapping the rear fuselage. When the rear right-hand door was opened no one was able to escape from there because of the flames; and worse still, flames soon penetrated the cabin. What had at first seemed to be a minor incident was quickly turning into a disaster.

Because of difficulty in opening other emergency doors and for other reasons such as obstructions, 2 crewmembers and 53 passengers died; 15 passengers sustained serious injuries; and 63 passengers and 1 firefighter had minor or no injuries.

Training material for U.S. firefighters even cites the disaster in stressing the danger hydrogen cyanide (HCN) given off by burning plastics represents

 The (Kegworth) fire killed 54 people of whom 47 had possibly lethal cyanide levels while only 11 had possibly fatal levels of carbon monoxide[i].

The painstaking studies of the disaster led the investigators to make 31 recommendations—many of which were at the time deemed too expensive or not worthwhile on a cost-benefit basis.  (At the time, the cost of a single passenger fatality was not the US$2.5 million it is in the United States today!)

[i] Discrepancy of 1 in total number of fatalities, perhaps because one victim died later. Other figures “don’t add up” because a victim could die from both causes.

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