The story

Jet crashes after takeoff at Heathrow, killing 118 people


On June 18, 1972, a Trident jetliner crashes after takeoff from Heathrow Airport in London, killing 118 people. The official cause of this accident remains unknown, but it may have happened simply because the plane was carrying too much weight.

As the summer of 1972 approached, there were serious problems facing the air-travel industry. Pilots were threatening to strike any day due to lack of security. Hijackings were becoming more common and pilots were feeling particularly vulnerable since they most often bore the brunt of the violence.

However, on June 18 at Heathrow Airport outside of London, all appeared to be running smoothly. The BEA morning flight to Brussels was full and weather conditions were perfect. The Trident 1 jet took off with no incident but, just after its wheels retracted, it began falling from the sky. The plane split on impact and an intense fireball from the plane’s fuel supply erupted, scattering the fuselage and passengers. Only two of the 118 passengers and crew members on board were pulled from the wreckage alive; both died just hours later.

All efforts to explain the crash were fruitless. The investigators’ best guess was that the jet simply was carrying too much weight or that the weight was improperly distributed and the plane could not handle the stress.


118 killed in worst UK air disaster

One hundred and eighteen people were killed last night in the worst air disaster in Britain. They died when a BEA Trident airliner ploughed into waste ground only a few yards from the Staines bypass on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport-London.

There were no survivors when the plane crashed, less than four minutes after taking off for Brussels. Its wheels had been retracted and the plane was climbing when it suddenly dropped, skimming over high-tension power lines and across the tops of cars before crashing on its underside. The impact broke the plane's spine, ripping off the tail section and sending it spinning through the air. The fuselage slewed across the muddy field and hit a line of trees on the edge of a reservoir.

The plane had hit an incredibly small space - a field no more than 100 yards wide. The way in which it crashed suggested that it might have lost virtually all power it came almost straight down, missing houses on either side of the field. A stall, from which the pilot would need a lot of height to recover even if it were not of the dangerous "deep" variety, would have the same effect. The "black box" flight recorders were recovered and taken to the mortuary in disused warehouses at the airport.

Thirty-four Britons were killed in the crash, including the crew. There were 29 passengers from the United States, 29 Belgians, 12 Irish, four South African, three Canadian, one Thai, two Jamaicans, one Latin American, one Indian, one French Afrique, and one Nigerian. There were between 25 and 30 women passengers, as well as two or three children.

The Department of Trade and Industry said the pilot's last message to ground control came two minutes after take-off. It said "Up to 60" which the DTI said, "Is quite a normal message." It means the pilot was climbing to a level of 6,000 feet."

After the crash, wreckage was scattered for a radius if almost four hundred yards around the shattered fuselage. The hundreds of workers struggling in clinging mud and a steady drizzle to cut their way into the buckled remains of the plane were hampered through the night by hundreds of sight-seers flocking towards the area.

Mr Cranley Onslow, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Aerospace, who went to the scene, said "callous" sight-seers were hampering the rescue workers. Two hours after the crash, all roads in the area were jammed by traffic.

The Trident, on flight BE 548 and code named G-ARPI, left Heathrow at 5.02pm with 109 passengers and nine crew members. By 5.06pm, it had crashed.

A man who had been driving along the A30 told police: "The plane just came whizzing in, along the road. You could have reached up and touched it."

Heathrow aircraft control sounded the full-scale disaster alert, and all airport emergency appliances, together with all available fire engines, ambulances, and police patrol cars for eight miles around sped to the scene.

Nine hospitals in the area prepared to receive casualties, and doctors were brought in for emergency duty. In the event, they were not needed.

As the first teams of firemen reached the wreck site - throughout the night they were to work at considerable personal risk as the aircraft contained tones of highly flammable fuel - they clawed with their hands in desperate attempts to reach the passengers inside. A local doctor who ran to the spot said: "It was ghastly, sickening. A terrible mess."

As police blocked off surrounding roads, other rescue teams began knocking down fences to enable ambulances to reach the plane. By 7pm, 70 bodies had been lifted from the fuselage and laid in long rows along the ground.

Long lines of rescuers formed in the steady drizzle, passing the broken bodies of the victims gently from the shattered fuselage to the ambulances. A number of the rescuers, police and firemen, were crying. One policeman said a small girl died in his arms as he carried her towards an ambulance.

One man was taken out of the wreckage with head injuries but died in hospital. He is understood to be Mr Melville Miller, managing director of Rowntree Mackintosh (Ireland) Limited.

A mobile crane was brought into the field to lift parts of the wreckage away the rescuers could not use oxyacetylene cutters because of the risk of an explosion. Relays of ambulances began taking the bodies to the special mortuary.

Mr Michael Stephens, of Staines, said he was cycling along a road near by "When I looked up and saw the tail of a plane bounce into the air . then the rest of the plane burst into flames." The fire was an isolated electrical fault and was quickly put out. Miss Christine Wallis said she was walking past the reservoir with friends when "bits of metal began flying around us . the plane split up as it tore along the ground."

Last night teams of investigators from the Department of Trade and Industry and the British Airline Pilots' Association arrived at the scene to find out the contents of the flight recorders.

The same plane was involved in a collision in July 1968, at Heathrow. It was stationary at one of the terminal piers when a freighter jet carrying horses got out of control and crashed into its side. Five people were killed in the freighter. The Trident's tail was torn off.

Until last night, the worst air disaster in Britain was in March, 1950, when an Avro Tudor crashed in Glamorgan, killing 80 passengers and crew.


118 killed in worst UK air disaster – 1972 BEA Trident crash at Staines shortly after take-off

One hundred and eighteen people were killed last night in the worst air disaster in Britain. They died when a BEA Trident airliner ploughed into waste ground only a few yards from the Staines bypass on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport-London.

There were no survivors when the plane crashed, less than four minutes after taking off for Brussels. Its wheels had been retracted and the plane was climbing when it suddenly dropped, skimming over high-tension power lines and across the tops of cars before crashing on its underside. The impact broke the plane’s spine, ripping off the tail section and sending it spinning through the air. The fuselage slewed across the muddy field and hit a line of trees on the edge of a reservoir.

The plane had hit an incredibly small space – a field no more than 100 yards wide. The way in which it crashed suggested that it might have lost virtually all power it came almost straight down, missing houses on either side of the field. A stall, from which the pilot would need a lot of height to recover even if it were not of the dangerous “deep” variety, would have the same effect. The “black box” flight recorders were recovered and taken to the mortuary in disused warehouses at the airport.

Thirty-four Britons were killed in the crash, including the crew. There were 29 passengers from the United States, 29 Belgians, 12 Irish, four South African, three Canadian, one Thai, two Jamaicans, one Latin American, one Indian, one French Afrique, and one Nigerian. There were between 25 and 30 women passengers, as well as two or three children.

The Department of Trade and Industry said the pilot’s last message to ground control came two minutes after take-off. It said “Up to 60” which the DTI said, “Is quite a normal message.” It means the pilot was climbing to a level of 6,000 feet.”

After the crash, wreckage was scattered for a radius if almost four hundred yards around the shattered fuselage. The hundreds of workers struggling in clinging mud and a steady drizzle to cut their way into the buckled remains of the plane were hampered through the night by hundreds of sight-seers flocking towards the area.

Mr Cranley Onslow, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Aerospace, who went to the scene, said “callous” sight-seers were hampering the rescue workers. Two hours after the crash, all roads in the area were jammed by traffic.

The Trident, on flight BE 548 and code named G-ARPI, left Heathrow at 5.02pm with 109 passengers and nine crew members. By 5.06pm, it had crashed.

A man who had been driving along the A30 told police: “The plane just came whizzing in, along the road. You could have reached up and touched it.”

Heathrow aircraft control sounded the full-scale disaster alert, and all airport emergency appliances, together with all available fire engines, ambulances, and police patrol cars for eight miles around sped to the scene.

Nine hospitals in the area prepared to receive casualties, and doctors were brought in for emergency duty. In the event, they were not needed.

As the first teams of firemen reached the wreck site – throughout the night they were to work at considerable personal risk as the aircraft contained tones of highly flammable fuel – they clawed with their hands in desperate attempts to reach the passengers inside. A local doctor who ran to the spot said: “It was ghastly, sickening. A terrible mess.”

As police blocked off surrounding roads, other rescue teams began knocking down fences to enable ambulances to reach the plane. By 7pm, 70 bodies had been lifted from the fuselage and laid in long rows along the ground.

Long lines of rescuers formed in the steady drizzle, passing the broken bodies of the victims gently from the shattered fuselage to the ambulances. A number of the rescuers, police and firemen, were crying. One policeman said a small girl died in his arms as he carried her towards an ambulance.

One man was taken out of the wreckage with head injuries but died in hospital. He is understood to be Mr Melville Miller, managing director of Rowntree Mackintosh (Ireland) Limited.

A mobile crane was brought into the field to lift parts of the wreckage away the rescuers could not use oxyacetylene cutters because of the risk of an explosion. Relays of ambulances began taking the bodies to the special mortuary.

Mr Michael Stephens, of Staines, said he was cycling along a road near by “When I looked up and saw the tail of a plane bounce into the air … then the rest of the plane burst into flames.” The fire was an isolated electrical fault and was quickly put out. Miss Christine Wallis said she was walking past the reservoir with friends when “bits of metal began flying around us … the plane split up as it tore along the ground.”

Last night teams of investigators from the Department of Trade and Industry and the British Airline Pilots’ Association arrived at the scene to find out the contents of the flight recorders.

The same plane was involved in a collision in July 1968, at Heathrow. It was stationary at one of the terminal piers when a freighter jet carrying horses got out of control and crashed into its side. Five people were killed in the freighter. The Trident’s tail was torn off.

Until last night, the worst air disaster in Britain was in March, 1950, when an Avro Tudor crashed in Glamorgan, killing 80 passengers and crew.

Wikipedia’s entry on the crash states:

British European Airways Flight 548 was a scheduled passenger flight from London Heathrow to Brussels on 18 June 1972 which crashed soon after take-off, killing all 118 people on board. The accident became known as the Staines disaster and remained the deadliest air disaster in Britain until the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The Hawker Siddeley Trident suffered a deep stall in the third minute of the flight and crashed near the town of Staines, narrowly missing a busy main road. The ensuing inquest principally blamed the captain for failing to maintain airspeed and configure the high-lift devices correctly. It cited the captain’s heart condition and the limited experience of the co-pilot, while also noting an unspecified “technical problem” that they apparently resolved while still on the runway. The process and findings of the inquiry were considered highly controversial among British pilots and the public.

The crash took place against the background of a pilots’ strike that had caused bad feelings between crew members. The strike had also disrupted services, causing Flight 548 to be loaded with the maximum weight allowable.

Recommendations from the inquiry led to the mandatory installation of cockpit voice recorders in British-registered airliners. Another recommendation was for greater caution before allowing off-duty crew members to occupy flight deck seats.

On 18 June 2004, two memorials in Staines were dedicated to those who died in the accident.

While technically advanced, the Trident (and other aircraft with a T-tail arrangement) had potentially dangerous stalling characteristics. If its airspeedwas insufficient, and particularly if its high-lift devices were not extended at the low speeds typical of climbing away after take-off or of approaching to land, it could enter a deep stall (or “superstall”) condition, in which the tail control surfaces become ineffective (as they are in the turbulence zone of the stalled main wing) from which recovery was practically impossible. [14]

The danger first came to light in a near-crash during a 1962 test flight when de Havilland pilots Peter Bugge and Ron Clear were testing the Trident’s stalling characteristics by pitching its nose progressively higher, thus reducing its airspeed: “After a critical angle of attack was reached, the Trident began to sink tail-down in a deep stall.” Eventually it entered a flat spin, and a crash “looked inevitable”, but luck saved the test crew. [15] [nb 3] The incident resulted in the Trident being fitted with an automatic stall warning system known as a “stick shaker“, and a stall recovery system known as a “stick pusher” which automatically pitched the aircraft down in order to build up speed if the crew failed to respond to the warning. [15]


Probable cause

The port (left) flap operating rod had failed due to metal fatigue. While the mechanism had failed, the compensating mechanism between the two sets of flaps remained intact. The port flaps had retracted but the compensator caused the starboard ones to extend further. The resulting asymmetry of lift resulted in the roll to port.

The pilot probably tried to overshoot and set the flaps to the correct 10 degrees, but due to the mechanism design this was not sufficient to cause the starboard flaps to retract (which would have taken 25 seconds in any event). The Department of Transport report concluded that whatever the pilot's actions, it was "doubtful" whether an accident could have been avoided.

After the accident all Ambassadors were fitted with steel reinforcements to the flap operating rods. [1]


118 killed as jet crashes at Milan airport

A Scandinavian SAS MD 80 airliner with 104 passengers on board hit a private aircraft before ploughing into the baggage-handling wing of Linate airport, Milan, early yesterday, killing 118 people.

Investigators attributed Italy's worst air accident for 30 years to a combination of pilot error and poor visibility caused by fog, ruling out the initial suspicion of terrorist action.

They said a private Cessna Citation twin-engine executive jet appeared to have cut across the runway as the passenger jet, on a flight from Milan to Copenhagen, was gathering speed for takeoff.

"There was fog at the time but conditions were absolutely compatible with flight operations," the airport's director, Vincenzo Fusco, said.

Witnesses spoke of hearing three explosions as the airliner burst into flames.

"It looked like war. A burnt out aircraft always makes a considerable impression," a rescue worker interviewed on television said.

Disaster struck flight SK686 at 8.20am as the plane was at full throttle, its nose beginning to lift. The Cessna, with two German citizens and two Italians on board, appeared to emerge from a lateral runway and taxied out in front of it.

The pilot of the SAS plane, which had 104 passengers - 56 foreigners and 48 Italians - and six crew on board, could not avoid the impact but appeared to take evasive action, crashing into the baggage handling hangar on the ground.

The tail section broke off and the jet burst into flames, setting fire to the airport building. At least four baggage handlers are believed to be among the victims.

The Italian authorities immediately closed the airport.

"I immediately thought it was a bomb that had exploded in one of the suitcases and ran to escape," Salvatore Reale, a baggage handler who suffered burns, said.

"One could hardly see anything because of the smoke, just the SAS plane inside the building. There was an acrid smell of burnt kerosene."

The incident could have been even worse, according to Nino Cortolillo, an official of the trade union CGIL. "If that hangar hadn't been there the SAS plane could have crashed on to the main airport building or even on to the road, where lots of cars were passing at that time of day," he said.

Visibility was around 200 metres at the time. The accident might have been prevented if the airport's ground-level radar - the surface movement ground control system - had been working. Trade union officials and pilots' representatives said the system had been out of action for about a year and a new system was not yet approved for use.

Experts said the SAS aircraft would have been travelling at more than 200mph and with its nose up it would have been impossible for the pilot to spot the small Cessna jet until it was too late.

They added that the Cessna, which was on a demonstration flight for a wealthy Italian who was considering buying it, should not have tried to cross the takeoff runway without specific authorisation from the control tower.

The businessman, Luca Fossati, 44, was the head of the food group Star, whose products are a familiar sight in all Italian kitchens.

Stefano Romanello, the European representative of the US manufacturers of the Cessna executive jet, was a passenger on the plane.

Yesterday the airport buses which normally carry passengers to their flights were pressed into service to carry body bags containing the charred remains of the accident victims.

As smoke clouds wafted through the closed terminal, grief-stricken rescue workers hunted for their missing airport colleagues. Three baggage handlers were in hospital last night suffering from burns and shock.

"The safety of Lombardy's airports has been sacrificed in recent years to the objectives of commercial efficiency and profit, which have been pursued through a policy of fanatical deregulation," Ezio Locatelli, the regional secretary of the Communist Refoundation, party said yesterday.

"The regional government has gambled everything on an abnormal expansion of air traffic and airports, sacrificing the safety of travellers, airport workers and the environment where the airports are located."

Italy's airports are currently on high alert because of the international terrorism crisis and the first reaction was to associate the tragedy with a possible terrorist act. Initial investigation ruled out that hypothesis, but the tension remained.

Yesterday a Saudi Arabian Boeing 777 airliner made an emergency landing at Fiumicino airport, Rome, after two anonymous phone calls to Heathrow airport warned that there was a bomb on board.

Recent fatal air crashes

October 4 200178 killed as Russian jet flying from Israel explodes over the Black Sea

July 3 2001 145 die when a Russian plane crashes near Irkutsk, Siberia

August 23 2000 Gulf Air jet from Cairo crashes off Bahrain, killing all 143 on board

July 25 2000 Air France Concorde crashes taking off from Paris, killing 109 on board and four on the ground

April 19 2000 Air Philippines jet crashes near Davao, killing 131

January 30 2000 179 die as Kenya Airways plane crashes after taking off from Abidjan, Ivory Coast


Jet crashes after takeoff at Heathrow, killing 118 people - HISTORY

Flight BE548 crashed within three minutes of taking off from London Heathrow airport, with the loss of 118 lives.

The Trident jet came down in a field near Staines after the crew of the aircraft failed to maintain the correct speed after take-off.

It remains one of Britain's worst air disasters.

Here is a selection of your memories of that day:

I was the BOAC Real Time Duty Officer in charge of the Real Time Computer System known as IPARS, on duty when the incident happened.

I got a call to close down the passenger list for BE548 as BOAC had access to it.

The next day I was on afternoon shift and somebody purporting to be the police phoned and asked for the passenger manifest.

I told him I could not give him the information over the phone. He turned out to be a newspaper reporter.

What depths they will go to at such times of tragedy!
Liam Murphy, UK

I was a leading ambulanceman on the second ambulance to arrive at the crash scene. Details were as described, and there was an eerie silence around the wreckage.

After checking casualties and finding no survivors, we were kept busy extricating bodies.

After about two hours there were many ambulances and fire tenders on scene, so we had the unpleasant job of loading the dead and taking them, with a police escort to a hangar at Heathrow.

An army lorry with a group of soldiers arrived during the recovery and these men did a great job and were a great help to everyone.
Bert Welland, UK

My father was the Captain of the Trident which crashed at Staines on 18 June 1972 when I was 13. Ever since this terrible tragedy, my family has had to endure the press repeating the unproven theory that he had a heart attack and this resulted in a lack of concentration leading to mistakes being made.

The inquiry actually reported that what really happened would never be known for sure. The reason for the crash was the droops being retracted too early leading to a stall.

There had been several problems with this lever before - it had even been known to move on its own - and it was altered as a result of this accident along with a number of other technical and procedural changes.

Another interesting fact is that the papers relating to this matter are being kept for 50 years rather than being released under the usual 30-year rule. Much easier for everyone if it can be blamed on the crew especially if they are unable to speak for themselves.
Julie Key, UK

I was returning to London in the college minibus from a friend's 21st birthday party in Weymouth that afternoon.

There was traffic everywhere but most of it diverted away from the A30. It was a rainy afternoon and I wouldn't have thought that anyone would have deliberately driven to see the wreckage we were all sent away along the A3044 by the time the news got out. Probably a result of being so close I have maintained an interest.

Then I read in one of my aviation books the possibility that the accident could have been caused by faulty instrumentation rather than pilot incapacity or error.

At the time the trident aircraft, although a fine machine, was losing sales to the American rival 727 and 737. Word that a fault with the aircraft could have been responsible might have further damaged the trident's sales prospects.

I tried to get more information but everywhere I looked seemed to be blocked - official reports out of print etc. Then I read today from the pilots ! daughter that the papers won't be released till 50 years are up presumably anyone who might have been involved in a cover-up will be safely in their coffins by then.

If Julie reads this perhaps she will accept that whatever actually happened that day your father didn't die in vain he did a great service to us all in making air travel as safe as it is now.
Brian Ransley, UK

My heart goes out to Julie Key.

My father was a First Officer on the Trident Fleet in 1972.

I was 10 years old and the memory of fearing that it was my father (who was flying that day) still brings me to tears all these years later.

Julie, I'm sure whatever pain your father may or may not have been in would have been immaterial.

He would have fought with everything he had to the last second to recover that aeroplane.

We can't know everything that happened but remember that although everyone on the flight died, no one on the ground was hurt.

They came down in a field despite being in a built up area.

They deserve credit for that.
Jan Hampshire, UK

I was a young 19-year-old fireman then.

The first we actually knew about the crash was when a guy rang the door bell at our fire station (Staines).

I remember his words clearly - "Did you know a plane has gone down near the Crooked Billet?"

We thought he was pulling our leg. Sadly, when we arrived I was appalled at the scene in front of me.

It was the worst incident I attended in 32 years' service.
Harry, UK

My brother, Dave Rigsby, was a newly qualified fireman when his watch were called to attend the crash. I think he was either stationed at Egham or Staines at the time. He was badly affected by what he saw and I don't think he ever really got over it.

Sadly he died himself three years later but I would welcome contact from any of his colleagues who also attended that horrendous crash.
Alison Brandon, England

My late father was a police officer at Staines and attended the crash site. The scenes that greeted him stayed with him for the rest of his life.

As regards to the so called sight-seers, the crash site was right next to the A30, a main route from London to the west, and would have been crowded with traffic that would have been stopped by the police, so they didn't have much choice but to have been there. It was the press that had to go on about ghouls.
Steve Manns, UK

At the time, I was Managing Director for Memorex's European Operations and living in Walton-on-Thames.

My financial officer and I had reservations on this plane. At the airport prior to checking in we met my Operations Officer who was booked on Sabena to Brussels at the same time. We tried to get him on our flight but it was fully booked. We then joined him on Sabena.

We learned of the crash on our arrival in Brussels. That was worth at least two or three of our nine lives.
William McCalmont, USA

I was a 19-year-old trainee ambulance man who attended this incident.

I would have been on the scene in one of the first ambulances but was diverted to a road accident at nearby Addlestone.

My recall was that we simply got on with the job unlike now in 2004 when everyone would have needed counselling.

My grandmother sent me £10 for bravery in the field. However it was quite traumatic particularly seeing all of the victims lined up on the floor of a hangar at Heathrow.
Paul J Meek, UK

I did not witness this crash but I was one of the shorthand writers who reported the official inquiry into the disaster. I remember that the other two members of the flight crew were Jeremy Keighley and Ticehurst.

Evidence revealed that, shortly before takeoff, the captain had been engaged in an altercation with someone in the canteen. I found the human interest, including the technical side of it, most absorbing.

I also recall that Farnborough had recently developed a system to determine exactly which warning lights are illuminated at the moment of impact. This was based on the extent of deformation of the bulb filaments.
Michael Phoenix, USA

I remember being in a car with my mother, father and sister. We were on our way back from the coast when we got caught up in the traffic jams that stretched to the M3.

It was very eerie as all we could see was the huge pillar of smoke in the distance as ambulances and fire engines raced by for what seemed like hours. We got home very late that night.

We had heard what happened on radio so we were very sad. One of my earliest memories. I hope that the families of those who passed away that day were able to eventually lessen their grief.
Ian, Hounslow

There but for the grace of God go I - I was booked to take this flight two days later. I remember the accident well and still, after 32 years, have my ticket for the Sunday flight. A very sad day for the families involved and so lucky that the flight did not land on Staines.
Tony FitzGerald, New Zealand

I was two at the time, being pushed in a pram across the Staines Moor. According to my father, the plane came down about 100 metres away from us. One man landed just next to us still clutching his briefcase. My mother rushed us home, and my dad stayed to search for survivors. He doesn't talk about the incident very much.
Barnaby, Australia

I was 12 at the time and living in Egham. My father was decorating my grandparents' house in Staines when he heard a thump. I remember sirens for hours and a big fuss about sightseers in the way of fire engines.

My friend who was passing in a car at the moment of the impact, stopped and was one of the first people on the sight. He said everything was silent, only one other person was running about to see if anyone was alive.

My friend then was able to see luggage over the grass and one of the cock pit crew lying dead.
Andrew Wykes, USA

I was 17 at the time and remember it well. I think that Private Eye ran a cartoon drawing of the back of a car with a sticker in saying: "We have seen the Trident Air Disaster". It was a criticism of the ghoulish behaviour of site-seers who had flooded to the crash site after the accident, causing problems for the police and emergency services.

Sadly, the captain of the Trident had a serious heart problem after take-off and the rest of the crew were rather inexperienced to deal with the problem with the prematurely retracted droops on the aircraft.
Jeffrey Davis, England

I think it was a grey Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend Heather and I were in the Staines Wimpy Bar as, unknown to us, the Trident fell a few hundred yards away.

Soon after, driving eastwards along the A308 dual carriageway from the Crooked Billet towards Sunbury Cross, we were horrified to see a fleet of ambulances - we counted 30-plus - racing westwards towards us. I was working at Heathrow airport and we just knew it must be a plane down, nothing else would merit that reaction.

Returning to our flat in Staines many hours later we were astonished to get caught up in heavy traffic caused by sightseers, many of whom were children presumably with their parents.
Aldo Hanson, UK My parents and grandmother were among the "sight-seers" on the A30.

Believe me, they certainly didn't choose to be there. They had been visiting relatives, and were returning home when the crash occurred. The police closed the road and they and many others were trapped for hours while the emergency services attended the scene.

So to all those who read in the papers about the vultures: don't believe all you hear.
Jane Pook, England

I was seven years old at the time and like some events in one's life, they stay in your memory. I was with my parents driving back from London and as a treat, my father decided to go via London airport so that my brother and I could plane spot!

In those days not every car had a radio and we got stuck in the traffic jam along the A3044. We assumed that there had been a road accident, but eventually word got back to us that a plane had crashed. My father did a U-turn and took another route home.

When we got home we watched the TV news and saw those ghastly scenes, in particular the Trident's severed tail lying in that field. As I grew up I became interested in air safety and bought every book on the Staines Trident crash so that I could find out what caused it.
Andrew Lee, UK

My father was a police officer at the crash. He's at a memorial service this week. He doesn't want to talk much about it. He's always hated flying since.
Gary, UK

My grandfather was one of the crash investigators called to the Staines disaster. He was based at Farnborough airport at the time.

My mother mentioned that they used that exact aircraft as passengers only four or five months earlier. It was one of the last air crashes my grandfather was involved in.
David Scard, England

I remember the roads blocking up with cars and the sad sight of morbid sightseers wanting to see the crash sight that Sunday night.

I also remember that even from Englefield Green you could see the blue lights of the emergency services that evening.
Steve Bowles, UK

I seem to remember the biggest hoo-ha regarding this tragedy was the fact that emergency people couldn't get near because of the sightseers!

In fact, I believe Giles of the Daily Express may have drawn a cartoon on the matter.
Susan Morrison, Scotland

I was six when this happened, and the field was behind our house. I remember lots of smoke for hours, and people trying to see what was going on. There were plenty of cars trying to make their way down a track into the field.
Graham Freeman, UK

I was an apprentice aircraft engineer at the time and like many other workers at Heathrow we had to commute past the crash site each day for some weeks until it was cleared. It was a sombre start to each day.

Later the management brought in the wrecked parts of the engines for us to dismantle as training. They were embedded with mud and grass. We refused as we all knew staff who had died in the crash and they relented and took the parts away.
Robert Miles, England

I was 11 at the time of the crash and lived in Hayes, the other side of the airport from Staines where the crash occured.

My father worked for Pan American on the airport at the time and arrived home clearly shocked that a plane could go down that quickly after take off.

Dad was quiet for a few days after this. He was rarely like this - in fact the next time I remember him this way was after the Tennerife Disaster (KLM/PanAm crash) where one of his friends on the flight deck was one of the few survivors.
Derek Britton, UK

I remember this day very well. I was 17, living about 10 miles from Heathrow and can remember the hours following the crash.

The road outside our house - Long Lane in Hillingdon - came to a complete standstill for about four or five hours. We believed it was because people were trying to get to the airport to see the scene.

I can honestly say it put me off flying and I didn't take my first flight until 1985. You would not believe what happened the day before we were due to fly? The Manchester air disaster when the plane again crashed on take off! I don't know how I managed to get on that plane.
Jane Green, England

Bad memories of very many people stopping on their way home to view the accident - ghoulish.

What you have not mentioned that the reason the aircraft stalled was at that time the leading edge flaps on the wings were not deployed or retracted early. These days these flaps remain automatically extended until the main flaps are withdrawn.
J Chubb, England

I was 16 at the time and was in a car being driven back to London by my late father when the news came over the car radio. As Staines wasn't too far away I asked my father if he would drive over there so I could see the crash.

My father looked at me curiously and said no it wasn't a good idea and I would not like what I would see. He was right and to this day I am still ashamed of myself for asking.
Anon

For someone with a lively interest in news and current affairs, the odd thing about this event is that I don't remember it. At all.

Not so odd, though, in that I was living in Cologne, Germany at the time, and reading about it reminds me how isolated one could be - in what is really the recent past - living just a few hundred miles away.

A huge contrast to today, when I have logged onto the BBC News site from my hotel room in Tokyo to catch up on the news - in 1972 I saved a king's ransom to buy a British newspaper once every couple of weeks and must have missed the coverage.

There is an interesting theme of ghoulishness versus curiosity running through people's memories.

I was touched by the comments of the (then) teenager who wanted his father to divert the car to see the crash site, and has been ashamed ever since.

p> At one time or another in our life most of us have said or done something - usually many things! - of which we are at least temporarily ashamed, and it seems to me that this is something he should not dwell on.

He was simply young and curious, and if a moral or ethical lesson was learned he should feel able to move on with a clear conscience.

Less caring people do much worse things and dismiss them from their mind immediately.

Finally, if it's true (as the daughter of the flight's Captain points up) that the full report will be suppressed for another 17 years: WHY?
Richard Savory, UK

My mother came into my bedroom to wake me up as usual. Her eyes were very red and as she sat down on my bed she started to cry. "You will never see Daddy again" she said. <br>

My father, Guy Jackson was one of the Irish businessmen on the plane. I have very few real memories of him but I do remember that he used to draw funny faces on my boiled eggs for me before cracking them. <br>

Thirty-one years later, on the morning of 19th June 2003 I watched my son being born in a hospital room in Japan. We named him 'Kai' in memory of his grandfather.<br>
Patrick Jackson, Japan<br>


Contents

With heavy involvement from C. D. Howe, a senior minister in the Mackenzie King cabinet, TCA was created by the Crown Corporation Canadian National Railway (CNR), and launched its first flight on 1 September 1937, on a flight between Vancouver and Seattle. An air-mail contract with Canada Post was one of the methods by which TCA was financed. [4]

The creation of TCA was partly by CNR management who wanted to expand the company into the new field of passenger aviation, and was partly by government direction. Prior to TCA, no large national airline existed in Canada. With war looming, and other nations (primarily the U.S.) experiencing major increases in the creation of passenger airlines, it was necessary to have a presence. The CNR was the country's largest corporation at the time and proved an effective vehicle for the government to create a national airline.

TCA was also in direct competition with passenger trains operated by parent CNR, and contributed to the decline of passenger rail service as Canada entered the pioneering years of air travel. In response to CNR's creation of TCA, arch-rival Canadian Pacific Railway created Canadian Pacific Air Lines in 1942.

Between 1943 and 1947, TCA operated the Canadian Government Trans-Atlantic Air Service (CGTAS) to provide trans-Atlantic military passenger and postal delivery service using Avro Lancastrian (modified Avro Lancaster) aircraft. [5] The record crossing was completed non-stop in 12:26 hours the average was about 13:25 hours. [6] CGTAS ushered in the era of commercial air travel across the North Atlantic. [7] After the war, the Lancastrians became part of TCA and carried paying civilian passengers until they were replaced by Douglas DC-4s. [8]

Postwar Edit

Starting in 1945, TCA acquired 30 twin-engined ex-military Douglas DC-3s for use on Canadian internal services and some of these remained in service until 1963 on shorter routes. A fleet of Merlin-powered Canadair North Stars was delivered from 1947 and these commenced services to several European countries, including the United Kingdom and to cities in the USA. The last of the North Stars was sold in 1961. [9]

The Canadair North Stars were gradually replaced by longer range Lockheed Super Constellations from 1954 onwards, fourteen being operated on transatlantic routes extending as far as Vienna in Austria also to Bermuda and several Caribbean destinations including Jamaica and Trinidad. The last Super Constellations were disposed of in 1963. [10] A large fleet of Vickers Viscount turboprop airliners was built up from late 1954 and these were used on many intra-North American routes. The Viscount was followed by the larger Vickers Vanguard turboprop. TCA was the only airline in North America to operate the Vanguard in scheduled passenger service.

In 1953 with the development of ReserVec (originally called Gemini), TCA became the first airline in the world to use a computer reservation system with remote terminals. [11]

The airline's Winnipeg maintenance shops and its first trial flight of the Viscount was documented in the 1955 film, Routine Flight. [12]

The airline acquired a fleet of Douglas DC-8 jet airliners powered by Rolls Royce Conways, the first being received on 25 May 1960. The DC-8 quickly replaced the slower Super Constellations on TCA's scheduled services to Europe.

Changes Edit

In 1964, an Act of Parliament proposed by Jean Chrétien changed the name of Trans-Canada Air Lines to "Air Canada", which was already in use as the airline's French-language name, effective 1 January 1965. In 1978, Air Canada was divested by parent CNR and became a separate Crown corporation. Air Canada was privatized in 1989.

TCA operated a network of 160 routes to destinations including:

  • St. John's, Newfoundland
  • Stephenville, Newfoundland
  • Gander, Newfoundland
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Sydney, Nova Scotia
  • Fredericton, New Brunswick
  • Victoria, British Columbia
  • Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • New York City, New York
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Brandon, Manitoba
  • Calgary, Alberta
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Edmonton, Alberta
  • Lethbridge, Alberta
  • Montreal, Quebec
  • Ottawa, Ontario
  • Tampa, Florida
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • Detroit (Windsor)
  • Seattle, Washington
  • London, England
  • Paris, France
  • Prestwick, Scotland
  • Shannon, Ireland
  • Düsseldorf, Germany
  • St. George's Parish, Bermuda
  • Nassau, Bahamas
  • Kingston, Jamaica
  • Christ Church, Barbados
  • Piarco, Trinidad
Trans-Canada Air Lines Fleet [13] [14]
Aircraft In Service Passengers Years in service
Vickers Viscount 48 1955–1974
Vickers Vanguard 108 1961–1972
Canadair North Star DC-4M-2 20 44 1946–1961
Douglas DC-8-40, 50 8 176 (economy), 124 (mixed) 1960–1983
Lockheed 10A Electra 5 10 1937–1941
Lockheed L-1049C/E/G/H Super Constellation 14 53-75 1954–1963
Bristol Freighter 3 freight only 2 crew 1953–1955
Douglas DC-3 27 21 1945–1963
Avro Lancaster Mk III - for freight/mail service and priority passengers 1 unknown 1943
Avro Lancastrian - for freight/mail service and priority passengers 9 10 1943–1947
Lockheed 18-08 Lodestar 15 14 1941–1949
Lockheed Super Electra 14H2 (14-08) 16 12 as 14-08 after conversion 10 1938–1949
Boeing-Stearman Model 75 - as trainer only 3 2 1937–1939

Aircraft on display Edit

One former TCA Lockheed L-1049G Super Constellation (CF-TGE), has been preserved by The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. It is currently on display at the Museum's "Airpark" attraction. [15]

A former TCA Vickers Viscount (CF-THG) is on display at the British Columbia Aviation Museum in Sidney, British Columbia. The aircraft has been completely refurbished by the museum.

Trans-Canada Air Lines had 13 aircraft accidents resulting in hull losses, with a total of 248 fatalities, between 1938 and 1963. These included: [16]


The Blame Game

The official report into the accident concluded that the cause of the accident was that &ldquothe operating crew shut down the No2 engine after a fan blade had fractured in No1 engine. This engine subsequently suffered a major thrust loss due to secondary fan damage after power had been increased during the final approach to land.&rdquo

The AAIB noted that while the training had met Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) requirements, neither pilot had been required to train in the simulator for an engine failure on the newer -400 model.

They said the combination of vibration and smell of smoke fell outside of their training and experience.

The report made several recommendations with regards to the engines themselves in terms of increasing inspections, particularly of fan blades.

It also recommended that the CAA review the the training and crew attitudes to vibration indicators on the flight deck and ensure crews are aware of the importance of these instruments in emergencies.


Voice Recorder Recovered from Crashed Sriwijaya Air Jet

MIAMI – Indonesia has recovered the cockpit voice recorder from a Sriwijaya Air (SJ) jet that crashed into the Java Sea in January. Air accident investigators said on Wednesday it could take up to a week to transcribe the recording.

The jet crashed shortly after takeoff on January 9, killing all 62 people on board. The CVR could help investigators understand the actions taken by the pilots of the doomed craft.

PK-CLC, the aircraft involved in the accident, at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in 2017, in an earlier livery. – CC BY-SA 2.0, Wiki Commons

Thrust Imbalance Likely Cause

According to Reuters, a preliminary report by investigators released in February said the plane had an imbalance in engine thrust. The imbalance eventually caused the jet to go into a sharp roll and then a final dive into the sea. The report included information from the flight data recorder (FDR).

Although divers had found the casing and beacon of the CVR from the 26-year-old Boeing Co 737-500 within days of the crash, they had still been searching for the memory unit in relatively shallow, muddy waters where currents are sometimes strong.

The CVR was located late on Tuesday under a meter of mud, Indonesia’s transport minister told a media conference.

“We will take CVR to a lab for reading [which will take], about three days to one week,” Indonesia National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) head Soerjanto Tjahjono said. “After, that we’ll transcribe and match it to FDR. Without a CVR, in the Sriwijaya 182 case, it would be very difficult to determine the cause.”


Jet crashes after takeoff at Heathrow, killing 118 people - HISTORY

1908. US Army flyer flown by Orville Wright crashes Killing Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

1909. Eugene Lefebre dies while piloting a Wright Biplane.

1910. John Moisant killed when plane crashes.

1910. Georges Chavez died in crash of plane after flying the Alps.

1912. Amy Quimby and her passenger Charles Willard are killed when they fall out of their plane.

1913. Sam Cody and his passenger killed.

1920. Two Latecoere airline planes crash.

1920. Handley Page 0/400 crashes in London killing pilot, engineer and two of six passengers.

1921. At the first crash at Le Bourget airfieldÊ five people were killed.

1921. Forty-four people were killed when the US navies new airship USN ZR-2 crashed in England.

1922. On April 7th two planes- one flying from Paris to London and other from London to Paris crashed head on six were killed

1923. Fifty-two crew members of the French airship Dixmude perish went down over the Mediterranean.

1925. Twenty-nine crew members of the airship USS Shenandoah

1928. Six Argentineans were killed when their plane crashed into Rio De Janero Bay.

1930. The British Airship R-101 blew up in France after crash landing on the way to Egypt.Ê 48 passengers and crew members were lost.

1935. Soviet ANT-20 Maxim Gorkii crashed killing 48 on board.

1937. Hindenburg Explodes on landing in Lakewood New Jersey killing 36.

1938. Stunt plane crashes into stands in Bogota Columbia, killing 53.

1944. US Bomber crashes into school in Freckelton, England, 76 are killed.

1945. US B-25 bomber crashes into Empire State Building in New York killing 14.

1947. Easter Airlines DC-4 crashes at Fort Deposit Maryland- 53 are killed.

1949. British South American Airways Tudor 4B disappears off Bermuda 40 are lost.

1950. British European Airlines Vickers Viking Crashes in Fog At Heathrow London, killing 28.

1951. Miami airlines C-46 crashed into the Elizabeth River killing 56.

1951. American Airlines Convair crashed into Elizabeth NJ killing 7 residents and 23 on plane.

1952. National Airlines DC-6 crashed in Elizabeth NJ killing 26.

1952. At the Farnborough Air Show a De Havilland DH 110 disintegrated in flight killing the pilot and 28 spectators on the ground.

1952. US Air Force transport crashes at Moses Lake, Washington 87 are killed.

1953. Canadian Pacific Airlines Comet crashes in Karachi 11 die.

1953. British Overseas Airlines Comet crashes near Calcutta India 43 killed.

1953. US Air Force plane crashes in Tokyo, 129 die.

1954. British Overseas Airlines Comet exploded in midair off the Italian coast.

1955. United Airlines DC-6B explodes and crashes 44 die.Ê A bomb was placed by passengers son to collect insurance.

1956. United Airlines DC-7 and a TWA Constellation crashed over the Grand Canyon, killing 128.

1957. Canadian DC -4 crashes near Quebec 79 die

1958. British European Airliner crashes on take off in Munich, killing 23 including 7 members of a British soccer team.

1959. American Airliner crashes into East River in NY 66 perish.

1960. Northwest Airliner crashes after midair explosion over Tell City, Indiana 63 die.

1960. Ê Midair collision of United DC-8 and TWA Constellation over Brooklyn NY results in the death of 127.

1961. Ê Boeing 707 of Sabena Airlines crashed while attempting to land 72 people died.

1961. A DC-6 operated by President Airlines crashed on take off in Shannon Ireland, 83 lost the lives.

1962. An American Airline Boeing 707 crashed into Jamaica Bay New York on take off- 95 die.

1962. British DC-7 crashes in Cameroon, 111 die.

1962. Two Air France Boeing 707 crash- The first crashes in Paris and 130 die, the second crashes in the West Indies where 113 perish.

1963. CharteredÊ DC-7 crashes off Alaska 101 perish.

1965. Easter DC 7 crashes after take off from Kennedy Airport in New York-84 die.

1965. Pakistani Boeing 707 crashes in Cairo-124 die.

1966- Indian Air Boeing 707 crashes into Mount Blanc in the French Alps 117 are killed.

1966. British Boeing 707 crashes into Mount Fuji in Japan 124 die.

1967. South Korean Air Force jet crashes into church dome killing 55.

1968. Boeing 707 crashes in South West Africa 123 die.

1969. DC-9 crashes in Venezuela, 155 die.

1970. Air Canada DC-8 crashed near Toronto, 109 killed.

1971. Boeing 727 and Japanese fighter collide over Morioka, Japan 162 die.

1971. Alaska Airlines B 727 crashes near Juneau Alaska, 109 die.

1972. Iberia Airlines Caravelle crashes on the island of Ibzia, 104 killed.

1972. Alitalia DC-8 crashes near Palermo Sicily 115 die.

1972. British airliner crashes on takeoff at Heathrow, 118 killed.

1972. East German Ilyshin crashed outside of Berlin, 156 die.

1972. Soviet Airliners crashes while landing in Lranaya Polyana.

1972. Spanish chartered Convair 990A crashes just after taking off from Tenerife in Canary Islands, 155 killed.

1972. United Airlines 737 crashes into houses near Midway airport, 45 die.

1972. Eastern Airlines Lockheed Tristar crashed into the Florida Everglades, 101 die.

1973. Boeing 707 crashes in Nigeria with 176 pilgrims from Mecca aboard.

1973. Boeing 707 of Varig Airlines crashes near Rio de Janeiro 122 killed.

1974. Turkish DC-10 crashes near Paris, 364 are killed.

1974. Pan Am 707 crashes on the island of Bali Indonesia, 107 die.

1974. DC-8 en route to Mecca crashes in Sri Lanka, 191 die.

1975. Eastern Boeing 727 crashes on approach to JFK.

1975. Boeing 727 crashes in Atlas mountains of Morocco, 188 die.

1975. Czechoslovakian Airliner crashed near Damascus Syria 126 die.

1976. Turkish Airliner crashes in Southern Turkey, 155 die.

1976. Midair collision between British Trident and Yugoslavian DC-9 176 die.

1977. Pan American and KLM 747 collide and on runway 583 killed.

1977. TAP airliners crashes on landing 130 die.

1978. Indian jet liner explodes in midair 213 perish.

1978. Midair collision between Pacific Southwest 737 and a private plane, 144 die.

1978. Chartered Icelandic jet crashes at Sri Lanka 183 die.

1978. Alitalia jet crashesÊ in sea new Palermo 109 die.

1979. An American Airlines DC-10 crashes on take-off at Chicago's Ohare airport , 275 die.

1979. Pakistan International 707 crashes into mountains of Saudi Arabia 156 die.

1979. Air New Zealand DC-10 crashes in Antarctica, 257 killed.

1980. Iranian Boeing 727 crashes outside Teheran, 128 due.

1980. Saudi ArabianÊ jetliner crashes.

1980. Chartered 727 carrying 138 passengers and a crew of 8 died.

1981. Midair explosion of Far Eastern Air jet over Sanyi, Taiwan 110 die.

1981. Chartered DC-9 crashes in Morocco 180 die.

1981. Chartered Yugoslav DC-9 smashes into Mountains of Morocco 181 perish.

1982. Boeing 737 goes down into the Potomac River 78 perish.

1982. Pan Am jet crashes after takeoff in Kenner, Louisiana 153 die.

1983. Ecuadorian Airliners crashes near Cuenca Ecuador, 119 die.

1983. Soviet fighter shoots down a Korean 747 killing 269.

1983. Colombian Airlines 747 crashes near Madrid 183 die.

1985. Air India 747 crashes into the sea near Ireland 329 die.

1985. Japan Air Lines 747 crashes killing 520.

1985. Arrow Air DC-8 crashes in New Foundland, killing 256 US serviceman on board.

1986. Mexican Airliner crashes near Mexico City killing 166.

1987. Polish airliner, Ilyshin 62M crashes after takeoff in Warsaw 183 killed.

1987. Northwest Airlines MD 30 crashes in Detroit, 156 perish.

1987. South African Airlines 747 crashes south of Mauritius, 160 lose lives.

1987. Korean Airlines 747 explodes and crashes due to bomb placed by North Korean agent, 115 die.

1988. USS Cruises Vincess accidentally shoots down Iranian Airbus, killing 290.

1988. Three jets from the Italian Air Force aerobatics team collide at air show- 70 die.

1988. Pan Am 747 explodes in-flight from terrorist attack 259 on board are killed.

1989. Ê Surinam Airways DC-8 crashes in fog killing 168.

1991. Canadian chartered DC-8 crashes in Jedda on takeoff killing 261.

1992.. Thai Aribus A-300 Crashes into the Mountains of Katmandu Nepal 113 die

1992 An El Al 200 Freighter crashed into two apartment buildings is Amsterdam the Netherlands, killing 120 almost all on the ground

1994- Aeroflot TU-154 Crashes after takeoff in Irkhutsk Russia killing 125

1994 China Airlines Airbus A-300 crashed at Japans Nagoya Airport Killing 264

1994 US Air Boeing 737 crashed in Alquippa Pa near Pittsburgh PA 132 killed.

1995 American Airlines 757 crashed 50 miles N of Cali Columbia killing 160

1996 Valuejet DC-9 crashes into the Florida Everglades shortly after takeoff- 110 die

1996 TWA 747 crashes in the Atlantic shortly after takeoff killing 230

1996 Saudi Arabia Boeing 747 and and cargo plane collide in midair near New Delhi India- 349 Die

1996 An Ethiopian Air 767 is hijacked and then crashed in the Indian Ocean 127 die

1997 Korean Air 747-300 crashed on approach in Guam 228 die

1998 China Airlines Airbus crashes on approach Tapei Taiwan 203 Die

1998 Swissair MD-10 crashes off New Fondland 259 Die

2000 Alaskan Air MD-80 crashes off the Mexican Coast killing 88

2002 American Airlines Airbus A-300 crashes after takeoff at Kennedy Airport in New York

2002- China Airlines 747 200 crashes as it approached Taiwan

2005 All survive an Air France aircraft that exploded after skidding off the runway

2006 - Armavia Flight 967 an Airbus A320 crashes into the Black Se all 113 are lost

2007 Adam Air Flight 574- Boeing 737 crashes off Indnesia all 102 are killed

2008 Aeroflot Blight 821 Boeing 737 crashes at Perm Airport in Moscow killing 88

2009 US Airways 1549 an A320 ditches in the Hudson River- all passengers survive

2009 AirFrance Flight 447 Rio to Paris crashes in the Atlantic killing 228

2010 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 a Boeing 737 crashes after takeoff from Beirut 90 die

2011 Iran Air Flight 227 Boeing 727 crashes at Urima Airport killing 77

2012 Bhoja Air Flight 213 Boeing 737 crashed at Rawalpini Pakistan killing 127

2013 Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363 Boeing 737 crashes at Kazan International Air killing all 50

2014 Air Algerie Flight 5017 an MD 83 crashes in the Mali Desert killing 110

2014 Indonesia Air Asia Flight 8501 Airbus A320 crashes in the water off Bornea killing 155

2016 Egypt air 804 Airbus A320 crashes in the Mediterranean all 66 are killed


475,000 Takeoffs and Landings a Year

Seconds after a British Airways Boeing 747 touches down with a puff of burning rubber, Pete Wooldridge and Jim Davison pull onto one of two runways at London’s Heathrow International Airport in a yellow and orange sport utility vehicle. Their job is to inspect the pavement for debris, cracks, or anything else that could perturb a jet traveling at 100 mph. But as they cruise down the centerline, it’s tough to ignore the view through their windshield: five airliners lined up on approach, all speeding straight at them.

From This Story

Heathrow's new control tower (below) is located near Terminal Three. The control room, mounted on a steel mast, is five stories high and weighs more than 1,000 tons. (Søren Geertsen) Controllers pick up where computers leave off — juggling late flights and cajoling early pilots to slow down. (Courtesy National Air Traffic Services) Not everyone is happy about Heathrow's frenetic growth, especially those who live beneath the flight paths. (Phil Weedon) Airport authorities hope the addition of a 60-gate terminal will alleviate some of the crowding at Heathrow. (Courtesy National Air Traffic Services)

Photo Gallery

Then the control tower radios orders: Vacate the runway. Wooldridge hits the gas and twists the wheel like he’s dodging a semi. The SUV lurches off the pavement at about 50 mph and jounces across the grassy shoulder as the tires of a Jet Airways Airbus A340-300 from India slam onto the runway, the airliner thundering past.

This is life at Europe’s busiest international airport, where the twin runways are some of the hardest working expanses of concrete on Earth. No other major airport moves so many airplanes and passengers through so little space, with so little time to spare. Any holdup reverberates around the world. Competition for landing rights is so fierce it’s the crux of international treaty negotiations (see “Finding a Place to Land,” p. 49).
But the cramped and crowded airport is in a battle for its future. Paris, Amsterdam, and other European airports boast more runways and space to handle the rising demand for air travel. Their flight schedules are growing while Heathrow is maxed out, hemmed in by residential areas and neighbors complaining noisily about noise.
The government’s response to the overcrowding is to float plans for giving Heathrow another runway, which would mean bulldozing centuries-old English villages off the map. People from surrounding villages promise, quite matter-of-factly, that before this happens, they will paralyze the airport with protests and lie in front of bulldozers. It has become, for Londoners, a kind of referendum on the future of commercial aviation: Unfurl new runways for an ever-expanding stream of global jet traffic that now has Heathrow bursting at the seams, or lay down limits on how far it can grow.

“The airport was a friendly employer years ago,” says Bryan Sobey, who started work at Heathrow as a young customs officer when the aircraft parked at the gates were Boeing Stratocruisers and Lockheed Constellations. He retired as a manager 15 years ago, and lives with his wife, Ann, in a working-class rowhouse just north of the airport. The windows are triple-paned and the walls lined with Styrofoam panels to mute airplane noise. His cluttered living room, with paintings of trains, bowling trophies on the walls, and cards celebrating the couple’s 55th wedding anniversary, sits where check-in desks and shops are to be located in a new terminal for the planned runway. Today, Sobey says, Heathrow is “like a dragon breaking out of its egg. It’s become an object of threat, really.”
RAF Heathrow
The airport began amid shady maneuverings near the close of World War II, when Winston Churchill’s government used wartime powers to seize a small private aerodrome and a village called Heath Row for a Royal Air Force base to supply troops in the Far East. But Harold Balfour, Churchill’s undersecretary of state for air, later admitted that was only a ploy to get control of the prime land, 12 miles west of Victoria Station, for London’s main commercial airport.

No base ever appeared. But Heathrow airport did.

This put what would turn into the world’s most bustling international airport smack in densely populated West London, the first of what two top British planners called “a series of minor planning disasters that together make up one of the country’s truly great planning catastrophes.” An early scheme would have permitted the airport to grow by adding more runways to the north, the same location where the unpopular new runway is now proposed to go. But funds ran short, and in 1952 the scheme was dropped. Airport neighbors sighed with relief, and construction began on houses like Bryan Sobey’s.

So the airport grew without much of a plan at all. When flying became more affordable in the 1970s—round-trip tickets between London and New York in the 1950s cost more than $4,000 in today’s dollars—terminals popped up one by one, crammed between a nexus of runways and taxiways originally built in a Star of David pattern. The cheaper and more popular air travel became, the more Heathrow grew new concourses inched like tentacles from the airport’s center onto the taxiways and runways. Eventually, they left only two parallel east-west runways that today send airplanes over the most populous parts of Europe’s second largest city.

The Air Traffic Two-Step
A 1978 government report estimated Heathrow’s capacity at 275,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Today, it manages about 475,000. The runways handle 1,370 takeoffs and landings in a day—up from 1,290 in 1995—all with no new pavement. They haven’t been widened or lengthened. But controllers have found ways to squeeze more aircraft onto them.
Air traffic controllers pride themselves on each week’s takeoff and landing stats—with number of minutes’ delay—which are displayed on a scoreboard-style readout in the air traffic center’s lobby. Martyn Jeffery recalls Heathrow’s record like a proud father. He is Heathrow’s general manager for National Air Traffic Services, once a government agency but now a private company that manages air traffic. The date was September 22, 2005: 48 arrivals and 52 departures in an hour—slightly less than one a minute.

Heathrow has gone 34 years without a major accident. The last was a British European Airways Trident that crashed just after takeoff in 1972, killing all 118 aboard. It was the nation’s worst air disaster—that is, until the bombing of a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Collisions have happened—on the ground. At least three times since 2004, airplanes jostling for position on busy taxiways have bumped wings or rudders. In 2005, the crew of a United Airlines 777 that struck an Air Jamaica A340 while heading for a takeoff holding spot suggested the Airbus was closer than it would be at other airports. But investigators said, “This was not considered unusual for Heathrow.”
One of the trade secrets of Heathrow’s air traffic controllers is that they don’t think about the people. They focus on the airplanes, because considering the hundreds inside every one—sipping their complementary sodas and worrying about their connections—would rapidly overwhelm anyone, says Mark Hewitt, a control tower supervisor.

A trick to making the most of Heathrow’s runways comes clear in the routing of inbound airliners. They go first to one of four beacons at each corner of the airport, where they circle in stacks—each one 1,000 feet above the other—waiting for controllers to direct them in. For passengers, it’s frustrating. For controllers, the stacks supply a constant reservoir of airplanes to put—rapid-fire—onto the pavement. The steady stream of airplanes from the stacks guarantees the runways never go idle.

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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