737 Stops with Fire Upwind (Manchester, UK, 1985)

 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.

British Airtours Flight 28M, August 22, 1985

The first production Boeing 737 short- to medium-range airliner was delivered to Lufthansa in 1968, and after a start that was so slow Boeing even considered abandoning production and selling the design to the Japanese, the aircraft became the most prolific airliner in the Western world.

By August 22, 1985, British Airtours, a subsidiary of British Airways, was using one for a routine charter flight from Manchester, in England, to Corfu, Greece. Virtually full, with 131 passengers and 6 crew members, the 737 was already engaged in its takeoff run, with the first officer as the handling pilot, when there was a loud thud. Assuming it was a tire blowout, the captain, Peter Terrington, ordered “Stop!” and at the same time pulled back the throttles and engaged reverse thrust. After having reached a maximum speed of 126 knots, the aircraft began to slow, with Terrington checking that the spoilers had deployed.

Terrington told First Officer Brian Love not to hammer the brakes, in order to limit the damage to the landing gear in the event of a blowout, and there was plenty of runway left anyway, as the decision to abort the takeoff had been taken well before V1. The first officer, who had been applying maximum braking, duly eased up on them.

As the groundspeed fell to 85 knots some nine seconds after the thud, Terrington 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 informed them there was a “lot of fire,” and that the fire appliances were on their way.

With their speed below 50 knots, Terrington queried the tower as to whether an evacuation seemed necessary. The controller replied, “I would do via the starboard side.” This was merely twenty seconds after the thud and twenty-five seconds before the aircraft came to a final stop. Some six seconds later, and fourteen seconds before the aircraft eventually stopped, Terrington turned the aircraft to the right so it could exit the runway via the Link Delta taxiway. Then, just 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 through there into the cabin. What had at first seemed to be a minor incident was quickly turning into a disaster.