British Airways’ Most Memorable Boeing 747 Flights

Our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with some of the most memorable flights of the past 40 years.

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BA Flight 149, BBC News, August 1990
BA Flight 149, BBC News, August 1990

Continuing our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA, here are some of the most memorable BA 747 flights from the past 40 years.

These are flights, some of which are still controversial to this today, that are remembered for the wrong reasons. More BA 747 flights from happier times will be shared tomorrow.

BA9 “All Engines Fail” – June 1982

On 24 June 1982, a BA Boeing 747-236 aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth plunged 25,000 feet.

All four engines had failed after the aircraft hit a cloud of volcanic ash from Mount Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia.

Captain Eric Moody, who at the time did not know the cause of the engine failure, told passengers: “This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem and all four engines have stopped. We are doing our damndest to get them working again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Captain Moody, First Officer Roger Greaves and Engineering Office Barry Townley-Freeman spent 13 minutes trying to regain power on the engines. The aircraft subsequently diverted to Jakarta, where it landed safely.

The Last Flight To Kuwait – August 1990

The circumstances surrounding flight BA149 on 1 August 1990 remain a source of controversy to this day. The flight was scheduled to depart London Heathrow at 16:15 GMT for Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait and Chennai.

There had been news reports on the day of escalating tensions between Iraq and Kuwait. BA claims it was advised by the British embassy in Kuwait that the situation was calm and there was no reason for the flight, operated by Boeing 747-136 G-AWND, not to operate.

The aircraft was in radio contact with BA in London during the flight. At no point were the flight crew advised of an impending invasion or to divert the aircraft.

The aircraft landed in Kuwait at 04:13 local time.  At around 05:00 local time the airport closed. In the next hour the runway was attacked by Iraqi forces and the aircraft was evacuated.  Passengers and crew immediately went to an airport hotel.

According to BA, 310 passengers and 82 BA employees were held hostage by Iraqis.   Women and children were allowed to return home in late August.  The remaining hostages were dispersed to various sites and some were used as “human shields”.  The last remaining passengers and BA employees were released on 9 December 1990.

The aircraft was destroyed following the liberation of Kuwait.

British Airways Boeing 747-137 Aircraft G-AWND, Kuwait
British Airways Boeing 747-137 Aircraft G-AWND, Kuwait

The controversy surrounding this flight is why it proceeded to operate when other airlines had suspended operations and who in BA and the UK Government knew what, and when.

It has been alleged that the UK Government wanted the aircraft to land in Kuwait to enable an intelligence gathering exercise to take place.

BA has always denied any knowledge of a group of intelligence operatives boarding the aircraft at Heathrow.  The UK Government maintained that the aircraft landed in Kuwait before the invasion and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a statement to that effect before Parliament.

BA has always maintained that it had no knowledge of the impending invasion of Kuwait and that it would never put its aircraft, passengers and crews at risk. No passenger list has ever been released for the flight.

A number of passengers sued BA in different jurisdictions. The airline settled cases brought in the US out of court, citing the cost of litigation. Passengers from France sued the airline and the courts found BA to be negligent and passengers were paid substantial damages. In the UK, attempts to bring the matter to court have been unsuccessful there has been no public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the flight.

Flight BA2069 – December 2000

On 29 December 2000 a passenger entered the flight deck of a Boeing 747-400 aircraft en route from London Gatwick to Nairobi.

The passenger attempted to seize the control of the Boeing 747 from First Officer Phil Watson who was flying the aircraft.

The other two members of the flight crew, Captain William Hagan who was on a rest break, and First Officer Richard Webb, struggled with the passenger during which the aircraft descended by thousands of feet and went into stall. The incident took place six hours into the flight over Sudan.

With the assistance of other passengers the pilots managed to remove the passenger from the controls and stabilise the aircraft.

In addition to the 3 flight crew, there were 379 passengers and 16 cabin crew on board the aircraft and some were injured during the incident. The aircraft subsequently landed safely in Nairobi.

Captain William Hagan recounted the incident to BBC Radio 4 in 2008:

I couldn’t understand why the aircraft was banking from one side to the other side and stalling. I thought perhaps one or two engines had fallen off. I thought perhaps we’ve been struck by debris, space debris. The movements of the aircraft were so extreme that this was the sort of explanation I was looking for. I then heard the pilot, Phil Watson, calling for help. And I have to say, that call filled me with fear.

The aircraft was in a very steep descent at that point, Phil was already recovering the bank angle. But the aircraft at that time its steepest descent, about 37 degrees nose down. As you stand behind the pilots with that kind of descent rate, it’s extremely frightening. And I thought that I didn’t have very much time in which to act. We had to get him off the controls. And in order to do that, I started hitting him. That was totally ineffective. I then grabbed his shoulders and lifted him. But when I did lift him, the first thing he did was to pull himself down onto the controls. And at the same time, that has the effect of pulling the nose of the aircraft upwards. So it was quite good in that arrested the extreme rate of descent but he was still on the controls. As we started climbing again, the aircraft once again went into the stall. You’ve got a 300 tonne aircraft that’s no longer flying, and it really buffets and shakes. We were about 60 knots below the flying speed of the aircraft. So it was literally falling.

I had inspiration. A few days before that we spent the Christmas holiday in Crieff. And I was driving my little boy, he was full of questions. And one of the questions he asked was that, how would you fight off a shark or crocodile if it attacked you. And I said to him, I’ve been told that if you jab your finger into its eye that it will cause it pain, and that will cause it to stop its attack. So I was trying to remember where we were so I could work out how much time we had before we hit the ground. Then suddenly, I remember over in Africa, the highest ground there is only about 10,000 feet, which was a great relief. And at the same time, I then remembered that I had my family with me including my little boy. And that’s the inspiration to reach forward, feel very deliberately for his eye, and insert my middle finger and push back hard upwards as hard as I could. And that’s when he felt enough pain to break off his attack turned around to tackle me. That’s when I took the decision to enrol help from the passengers. And I called out loudly, loudly as I could “Help, help, help. Somebody come in, come in, come in”. And that’s exactly what happened. Then there I think there were about five or six people entered the cockpit. They tackled him from behind. I immediately removed myself from the fight and went back into my seat to see that Phil was actually virtually recovered from the stall at that stage and was putting the aircraft back to birth should have been.

3 Engines 4 Long-Haul – February 2005

BA found itself on the wrong side of the Federal Aviation Administration when it operated a Boeing 747 flight from the US with only three operational engines.

On 19 February 2005, flight BA268 took off from Los Angeles en route for London Heathrow, operated by Boeing 747-436 G-BNLG. One engine experienced a compressor stall shortly after take off. After circling the aircraft over the Pacific, the Captain decided that as there was no danger to the aircraft, the flight should continue to London.

The aircraft continued safely across the Atlantic Ocean. However, as the aircraft had flown at a lower altitude and had burned more fuel than planned the Captain decided on its approach the the UK to make an emergency landing at Manchester Airport.

The FAA used BA of recklessness, with particular criticism that as the incident occurred very shortly after takeoff, the aircraft should have returned to Los Angeles.

BA expressed surprise at the FAA’s claim, citing the fact that the Boeing 747 is certified to fly with three operational engines and there were a number of suitable diversionary airports en route if necessary. An internal BA investigation found no fault on the part of the flight crew and the FAA dropped its investigation.

The Unscheduled Diversion To Kazakhstan – April 2006

Many passengers taking a holiday to Australia choose to have a stopover en route.

In April 2006, passengers on BA flight from Sydney to London had an unexpected stopover in Kazakhstan.

Flight BA10 from Sydney to London Heathrow via Bangkok had to divert en route from Bangkok to London Heathrow due to a warning of a fire in the cargo hold. This proved to be a false alarm.

The aircraft, carrying 354 passengers and 18 crew members, landed safely in Uralsk, where the rare sight of a Boeing 747 – the airport did not have steps that could reach the aircraft door – attracted considerable local attention.

As a fully loaded Boeing 747 could not take off from the runway, BA had to send three Airbus A320 aircraft to the airport to bring passengers back to the UK.

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