Captain Coolly Announces No Engines Working (Jakarta, 1982)

In 1982, a British Airways 747 encountered a strange, almost mystical phenomenon high up in the lonely sky off Indonesia. With the aircrew not knowing why, all four engines failed, leaving the aircraft gliding through the night sky, with high mountains between them and the nearest diversion airport.

British Airways Flight 9, June 24, 1982

Many of the passengers—and particularly those who had boarded in London and endured many stops and delays on what was then the longest scheduled five-stopover flight, from London to New Zealand—were dozing off after the evening meal. Everything had been going smoothly on that leg from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, with only one more stopover to go.

Then some two and a half hours into the leg, passengers on the Boeing 747 started complaining that there were too many smokers. On seeing the haze at the back of the economy-class cabin, the cabin crew wondered why so many were lighting up when they would normally be trying to get some sleep. As the smoke and acrid smell of burning increased, cabin staff surreptitiously went around ensuring a smoldering cigarette was not about to start a fire.

Meanwhile, profiting from a quiet moment on the flight deck, the captain had taken the opportunity to go to the toilet and stretch his legs. The first officer and flight engineer left in charge on the flight deck had the autopilot handling the aircraft and only needed to keep a lookout and be ready for anything unexpected.

Having passed right over Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, the 747 was about to cross the mountains and head out over the Indian Ocean, stretching from India to Antarctica. Cruising at thirty-seven thousand feet, with bright stars overhead and little cloud below, the first officer and flight engineer began to see odd light effects ahead, which they later said were like Saint Elmo’s fire, a phenomenon in which lightning dances around in the sky. Yet their weather radar gave no indication of storm clouds.

Soon, with flashes of light and tiny balls of fire rushing at them and exploding on the windscreen, the crew’s amazement switched to concern, and the first officer called the captain, who was relaxing just below. Hurrying up the stairs, Captain Moody could hardly believe what he was seeing. No one could work out what it was; it seemed out of this world. High up in the sky, with no light pollution, anything producing some degree of light is immediately obvious, and a strange glow seemed to be enveloping the leading edge of the wings and the nacelles of the engines. Worse still, the engines themselves appeared to be illuminated from inside. Passengers seated behind the engines were startled to see bright particles issuing from them. Their rough running began to rouse the few passengers still asleep. A pungent smell of smoke prompted the flight engineer to check for fire and consider shutting down the air-conditioning, even though he could not find any reason to do so.

Two minutes after entering the zone where the strange phenomenon was occurring, the instruments indicated a pneumatic valve pressure problem for the number four (outside right) engine, which afterward surged and flamed out. A minute later the number two engine failed likewise, and failure of engines number one and three soon followed. They had become a glider with 15 crew members and 248 passengers, including children and babies.

Though airliners do not make good gliders, their great cruising height—in this case thirty-seven thousand feet—means they usually have some time in which to restart the engines or select somewhere they might be able to land in the most unlikely event of the engines failing at cruising height. However, in this case their predicament was particularly serious in that the nearest diversion airport (Jakarta-Halim) had high mountains on its approach, and it would be quite impossible to keep above the 11,500-foot minimum height needed to reach it safely.

Ditching a 747 in the sea in daytime when able to judge the height and direction of the swell would be difficult enough, but it was 10 p.m., and the chances of a successful ditching in the dark would be virtually zero, especially as unknown to them at the time their landing lights had been sandblasted and would have been useless. While any survivors might find the warm waters of the Indian Ocean more hospitable than, say, the cold Atlantic, the likelihood of someone bleeding would mean it would not be long before sharks came for a late supper.