The British Airtours Boeing 737 jet with 131 passengers aboard was hurtling down a runway at Manchester’s Ringway Airport, bound for a holiday in the sun on the Greek island of Corfu. Then, as the aircraft began liftoff, the port-wing engine exploded, setting the plane on fire. Within seconds the entire cabin had turned into a raging inferno, with temperatures soaring to 500°C. As pilot Peter Terrington aborted the takeoff and directed the plane to the airport’s fire station, hysterical passengers rushed frantically for emergency exits. Fifty-four people died. “It was like being in hell,” said survivor Keith Middleton. “Everyone was screaming and shouting and trampling over everything and anybody to get out.” With the plane’s fuselage engulfed by the intense heat, smoke and flames filled the cabin instantly, trapping the victims, including two flight attendants. “They didn’t stand a chance,” said Mike Mather, 21, another survivor. “The aisles of those planes are so small. People were falling on top of each other trying to get out.” The 737, which has a good safety record, incinerated in less than one minute. Said William Tench, a former government crash investigator: “I’ve never come across a fire that happened so quickly, so viciously.”
The cause of last week’s accident, the 15th in commercial aviation this year, was not immediately clear. But investigators concentrated on the possibility of a flaw in the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney JT8D-15 engines. Initial findings indicated that a piece of the combustion chamber had broken loose, severing the fuel lines and soaking the plane in jet fuel. In a similar incident last May another Boeing 737 aborted its takeoff from Doha airport in Qatar on the Persian Gulf. Officials from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board later found that an engine fragment had pierced a fuel tank, setting the engines on fire. There were no casualties, but the board recommended that Pratt & Whitney engines be tested for defects.
The British Airtours fire, the worst airline disaster in Britain in 13 years, was the latest in a series that has made 1985 the worst year in the history of civil aviation: 1,400 people have been killed. Last month a Japan Air Lines 747 carrying 524 passengers and crew from Tokyo to Osaka plunged into a mountainside. There were only four survivors. In June an Air-India 747 flying from Toronto to Bombay crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 329 aboard. Investigators have so
far failed to find the cause of either accident. Still, flying remains the safest of all means of travel.
In Japan transport ministry officials last week reconstructed the chain of events that forced the JAL jet to lose
navigational power. Thirteen minutes out of Tokyo’s Haneda airport, as it flew over the Izu peninsula, the plane’s tail fin—or vertical stabilizer—disintegrated, and hydraulic fluid pipes running through it were sev_
ered. Without the hydraulic system the pilot could not control the plane. As a result, the back of the aircraft began to shake violently, rupturing the rear pressure bulkhead and causing a rapid loss of pressure in the cabin—and the white smoke of water vapor that the four survivors remembered seeing. Investigators said that very strong winds or turbulence might have caused the tail fin to snap off. But they conceded that they had no definitive explanation for the primary cause of the crash.
At the same time, Canadian law enforcement authorities continued their quest for the cause of the June 23 AirIndia crash. It was assumed that the 747 jumbo jet was destroyed by a bomb, possibly planted by Sikh extremists in
Vancouver. But some Sikhs said that Indian government agents planted the explosive to discredit separatist Sikhs who want an independent state in India. Meanwhile, as the world’s airline car-
_ riers began inspections of
their fleets, industry spokesmen insisted that the recent disasters did not signal a decline in air safety. In fact, Eugene Sochor, a spokesman for the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, insisted that despite this year’s record the long-term trend of air fatalities had actually decreased in recent years. The odds of a fatal crash, Sochor said, remained one in 500,000 flights.
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