Update released February 18, 2008 CLICK HERE
Heathrow plane crash 'not mechanical failure’
By David Millward, Transport Editor
Last Updated: 7:03pm GMT 18/02/2008
A fuel leak from the British Airways Boeing 777 which crash-landed at Heathrow could have engulfed passengers and crew in a fireball, a report has revealed.
The latest Air Accidents Investigation Branch report found that valves designed to cut off fuel in the event of an emergency were open when its team examined the aircraft.
While the AAIB failed to find the reason why the aircraft was forced to crash land at Heathrow last month, its study showed just how close the 136 passengers and 16 crew came to disaster.
The open valves led to a loss of fuel from the aircraft.
“This was not causal to the accident but could have had serious consequences in the event of a fire during the evacuation,” the report said.
The valves are designed to stop fuel supply immediately in the event of an accident or an engine fire. They should be cut off first - either automatically or manually - before the fire handle, which works the onboard fire extinguisher, is turned.
But the original design of the wiring was found to prevent this happening, leading Boeing to advise airlines to modify this.
The Federal Aviation Authority in Washington has set a deadline of July 2010 for this work to be done for all 667 Boeing 777s in service.
However, this modification had not been carried out on this particular BA plane. As a result, the two procedures were carried out manually by Peter Burkill, the captain, and John Coward, his first officer. With time short, they did so simultaneously.
This, however, led to one of the valves not being cut off, leading to a loss of fuel from the aircraft.
“It’s a bit like turning a fire extinguisher onto an engine before you have turned off the ignition,” one industry expert explained.
BA said the two men followed BA’s standard procedures, which had been agreed with Boeing. However, the AAIB has told Boeing to instruct airlines to make sure that the fuel valve is cut off before the fire handle is operated.
“We have already implemented these changes to reflect the latest advice,” a BA spokesman said.
The investigation, however, failed to identify why the engines failed to receive enough thrust as they approached Heathrow.
Investigators found no evidence of mechanical failure. They also ruled out the possibility that fuel froze during the flight or was contaminated, or that birdstrike was to blame.