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 Its wheels had been retracted and the plane was climbing when it suddenly dropped, skimming over high-tension power lines and across the tops of cars before crashing on its underside.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.
There are “On this day” reports from people involved on the BBC at http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/low/witness/june/18/newsid_3001000/3001756.stm
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.
and on stalling it says:
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.
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.[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.
……………. and there is more ……….