The Boeing 777 has been in service since 1995 and has an almost impeccable safety record. Why, then, did one crash at Heathrow Airport in London recently?
While much discussion is taking place on the possible causes, few ‘experts’ are voicing the simplest and most likely cause, that the aircraft ran out of fuel on its final approach.
There are presently four theories as to why the plane crashed:
(1) Fuel contamination or starvation – if water got into the fuel, or there was a blockage it would explain a sudden loss of power, but not why both engines were effected simultaneously.
(2) A bird strike – flocks of geese or other large birds hitting the aircraft in large numbers might conceivably cause one engine to stop, but it would be a mighty coincidence if both were effected, given the stringent tests aircraft engines undergo to guard against just such mishaps.
(3) A freak wind sheer – rapidly-changing winds in very squally conditions can cause planes to stall. There were no significant wind sheer conditions in the area at the time.
(4) The aircraft ran out of fuel. This is considered unlikely as, according to a preliminary Air Accident Investigation Board report, a “significant amount” of fuel leaked from the aircraft, and in any case that would not explain why no early warning of fuel shortage was apparently given to the crew.”
The relevant factor here is just how much fuel the AAIB considered to be “substantial”.
Back in 2005, a Boeing 747 operated by British Airways flew from Los Angeles to Manchester, England, with one of its four engines inoperative. BA refused to allow the pilot to return to Los Angeles, despite the engine having caught fire on take-off from that airport. According to a report of the time in the Independent newspaper:
“An air traffic controller, who had seen flames coming from an engine on the Boeing 747 at Los Angeles, told a colleague on hearing the plane was continuing its flight: “If you would have saw what we saw out the window, you’d be amazed at that.”
As the International Herald Tribune also reported at the time, the plane, though bound for London’s Heathrow Airport, was eventually forced to make an emergency landing at Manchester due to a shortage of fuel.
The Tribune reports:
“……. A 747 cannot burn all the fuel in its tanks because fuel levels eventually sink below the fuel intakes, especially if the fuel is sloshing around. The plane must have at least a four-ton reserve in its tanks……..
If this was also the case with the Boeing 777 that crashed at Heathrow Airport, then the “substantial” amount of fuel that leaked from the plane would have to have been around four tons? Or, maybe just two tons, given it’s a smaller aircraft?
The argument expressed by the AAIB, that the pilots had no early warning of fuel shortage, doesn’t hold water because we do not know if there was any early warning, or not. Presumably, the pilots say not, but are they telling the truth?
British Airways is known for a bellicose policy towards its staff, so is it possible the pilots were under instructions not to discuss this factor? Presumably, any low fuel warning will show up on the flight recorders, so the matter could not be kept secret for long.
British Airways does not have the best safety record. Back in 2006 the British newspaper, “Sunday Times” published a report on the carrier. Unfortunately, that report is no longer available, but below is a reference copied from a Google-cached webpage from January 4th, 2008:
” BA PLANES – SAFETY CONCERNS
Before you travel you you ought to know the following:
On Feb 7th: 06 BA Flight 184 en route from Newark USA to London was forced to make an emergency landing at Boston after fumes of an acid nature were reported on the flight deck, according to a BA spokesperson. A spokesperson for the American Federal Aviation Authority said that during the incident on the Boeing 777 smoke was visible on the flight deck. The plane was 75 miles East of Boston at the time.
On 11th Jan. Following a power failure and a suspected engine fire whilst taxiing to the take off runway at Edinburgh Airport, passengers on Flight BA 8703 were evacuted via an emergency chute.
Earlier in the month an investigative report in The Sunday Times (Jan 01) has revealed that at least four British Airways planes have experienced serious technical problems whilst in flight. These include:
A door falling from a Boeing 777 at 6,000ft which damaged the fuselage before crashing to land near a couple out for walk. The door had not been checked to ensure it shut firmly after an inspection by maintenance enginneers.
Fuel leaked out of a holed fuel tank on another flight leaving behind a 4km vapour trail. The hole should have been plugged by a screw and cap which were left inside the fuel tank.. ….
Another plane, a Boeing 757, that failed to respond correctly to flight controls was later found to be minus two wing panels. They were later dicovered in a storage rack in a maintenance hanger
On another flight the Pilots of a 757 had to use oxygen masks and make an emergency landing when the flight cabin filled with oil fumes. Aircraft enginneers had overfilled the jet with oil..
Currently accident investigators are also investigating a flight to Budapest in October when the air crew heard a strange banging sound which was immediately followed by a blackout on the flight deck. During this incident the flight and navigation displays failed along with the auto pilot. Maintenance enginneers could not establish the reason for the fault and amazingly the plane was not taken out of service for some time.
Other similiar instances are detailed in The Sunday Times report which publishes the findings of the AAIB (Air Accident Investigation Board). Amongst their findings the AAIB have concluded that these problems were the result of systemic issues which increased the probabilty of error, rather than wilful negilence or intentional poor workmanship.
A response from British Airways is also included in the report. The size of the British Airways fleet has remained static over the last decade, but the number of engineers and maintenance staff working on them has been reduced by about a third.”
Cached webpage available HERE.
With most airlines today, profit margins mean curtailing safety margins. British Airways seems particularly prone in this area and I avoid flying with the carrier whenever possible. While the flight crews may be excellent, their upper management leaves much to be desired.
The reason Flight BA038 from Beijing last week failed to make its Heathrow runway will, no doubt, become apparent in due course.
Whatever the result of the investigation, it’s likely that BA’s upper management team will continue to sleep soundly in their beds at night.
Filed under: Do they care?