To mark the anniversary of the Lockerbie crash, we look back at seven of Britain’s deadliest aviation disasters.
Pan Am Flight 103 – 270 fatalities
On 21 December, 1988, Pan Am flight PA103 was cruising at 31,000 feet over Dumfries and Galloway when it exploded, crashing down on the town of Lockerbie and a surrounding area of 850 square miles. All 269 people on board and 11 on the ground were killed, making it the deadliest terror attack on UK soil. The Boeing 747 had taken off from Heathrow, bound for New York City, with mostly American passengers (including 35 students from Syracuse University, returning home for Christmas, but also 32 Britons and 22 other Europeans). Thirty-eight minutes later, wreckage and bodies began falling from the sky on the small town in southern Scotland.
The explosion punched a 20-inch hole in the left side of the fuselage, causing the aircraft to break apart instantly and plummet to the ground.
Among the worst hit areas was Sherwood Crescent, where boths wings and gallons of fuel landed, creating a blast so powerful it destroyed 11 homes and melted cast-iron fences. The pilot of another plane, en route from London to Glasgow and flown by BA, spotted the inferno and informed Scottish authorities.
The results of a joint investigation into the disaster by the Dumfries and Galloway police and the FBI pointed to an act of terrorism orchestrated by the Libyan Intelligence Services – an act of revenge for the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli (which was itself retaliation for the bombing earlier that year of a discotheque in Berlin frequented by US service personnel).
Col. Muammar Gaddafi, ruler of Libya, was initially unwilling to release the two chief suspects: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah. The UN responded by placing sanctions on Libya but it wasn’t until 1999, 10 years after the bombing and in the face of continuing sanctions, that Gaddafi handed the two over to stand trial.
The judges concluded that al-Megrahi had placed a brown hard-shell Samsonite suitcase onto Air Malta flight KM180, travelling from Malta’s Luqa Airport to Frankfurt. Once in Frankfurt, the suitcase was routed onto the Pan Am jumbo bound for London then New York. In the suitcase al-Megrahi had placed 12 items of clothing, an umbrella, and an improvised explosive device made from a Toshiba RT-SF16 radio cassette player filled with Semtex and a separate Swiss-made electronic timer. The special court convicted al-Megrahi of murdering all 270 people and sentenced him to 27 years imprisonment at Greenock Prison in Inverclyde. Fhimah was acquitted.
Many still dispute the verdict, however, and believe al-Megrahi – who returned to Libya on compassionate grounds in 2009 and died in 2012 – was the innocent fall guy. Among them are relatives of the bereaved, including Dr Jim Swire, who lost his 23-year-old daughter Laura in the bombing and has campaigned for a full inquiry into the disaster ever since. Aamer Anwar, his family’s lawyer, said the truth remains elusive but that the finger of blame has long been pointed at Iran for “having ordered a Syrian-Palestinian group to carry out a revenge attack for the downing of an Iranian Airbus (with the loss of 259 lives) by the US Vincennes [guided missile cruiser]” in July 1988.
He described the case as “the worst miscarriage of justice” seen in Britain and said a reversal of the verdict would mean the US and UK governments would “stand exposed as having lived a monumental lie for 30 years”.
Kegworth Air Disaster – 47 fatalities
British Midland Flight 92, en route from Heathrow to Belfast, came down just short of the runway at East Midlands Airport after attempting an emergency landing on January 8, 1989.
The aircraft, a new 737-400 that had been in British Midland’s fleet for just two months, was at its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet when a fan blade broke on its left engine. A loud noise were heard, followed by severe vibration, and the flight deck began filling with smoke.
Passengers near the rear of the plane, as well as three flight attendants, observed sparks and smoke coming from the left engine – but this information was not relayed to the flight crew, who mistakenly shut down the functioning right engine instead. Why? The pilots –Captain Hunt, 43, and First Officer David McClelland, 39 – believed the smoke was drifting forward from the passenger cabin, and, because earlier 737 models fed the passenger cabin with “bleed air”, for pressurisation and air conditioning, from the right engine, they assumed it was the source of the problem. In fact, the 737-400 supplied the cabin with bleed air from both engines.
When Hunt asked McClelland which engine was causing the trouble, he said: “It’s the le… it’s the right one”, to which the captain replied: “OK, throttle it back”. The pilots said the smell of burning dissipated after shutting down the right engine, leading them to assume their course of action was correct. The left engine continued to operate, albeit with higher than normal levels of vibration.
“When they switched the right-hand [engine] off, it actually stopped most of the problems in the left, and it almost went back to a normal flight,” Anne Hazard, one of the flight attendants on board, told the Nottingham Post. “It wasn’t vibrating or shuddering anymore.”
The pilots contacted air traffic control and arranged for a diversion to East Midlands, and the aircraft almost made it there on just its damaged left engine. However, a couple of miles short of the runway, at 2,000 feet above ground, there was an abrupt loss of power. In a bid to maintain speed, Hunt pumped more fuel into the malfunctioning engine, which then burst into flames and shut down. Attempts to restart it failed.
“Prepare for crash landing,” the captain said over the cabin address system at precisely 2024.33 hours.
Ten seconds later the aircraft struck the ground, bounced across the M1 motorway (incredibly there were no cars travelling on that section at the time), before knocking down trees and a lamppost and breaking into three main sections around 900 metres short of the runway.
“All I could see was a little bit of light, like when you’ve got your curtains slightly open in the morning, the sun’s coming through and you can see little particles floating around the room,” said Hazard, who suffered a broken arm and fractured spine but went back to work 15 months after the crash. “I heard some moaning and groaning, but otherwise it was eerily silent.”
The flight attendant was unable to open the damaged aircraft door and was eventually rescued by a firefighter. “As he was carrying me down, my skirt was getting higher and higher, and all I remember saying to him was, ‘Can you pull my skirt down, you can see my underwear.’
“He said, ‘My dear, that’s the last thing you need to worry about.’ You do sometimes come out with the strangest things. But that’s what I was concerned about.”
Of the 126 on board, 39 died in the crash and eight more from injuries sustained. The first person to reach the stricken jet was Graham Pearson, a former Royal Marine who spent more than three hours inside the wreckage assisting with the removal of casualties and looking after an injured mother and child. He went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and was awarded £57,000 in damages.
Hunt and McClelland, both seriously injured in the crash, were sacked by the airline, though McClelland was later handed an out-of-court settlement for unfair dismissal. “We were the easy option – the cheap option if you wish,” said Hunt two years later. “We made a mistake – we both made mistakes – but the question we would like answered is why we made those mistakes.”
An official report called for improved training and revealed that neither pilot had received simulator training on the new model, since no 737-400 simulators existed in the UK at the time. The blade fracture was attributed to metal fatigue and the inquiry said the new engines had been tested only in the laboratory and not under representative flight conditions.
There was also a call for the improvement of the structural integrity of seating and the cabin floor. The majority of fatalities were in the forward section of the plane, where the floor had collapsed, while those in the overwing and tail sections had a greater chance of survival.
Airlines now urge cabin crew to inform pilots if they spot any problems rather than assume they know what is happening with the plane, and the brace position we know today also emerged from the disaster. The University of Nottingham and the consultancy company Hawtal Whiting Structures studied the resulting injuries from those who did and did not adopt the position and new guidance was issued to airlines in 1993.
Many victims and survivors were found to have legs broken below the knee, the result of their legs flying into, or being forced against the seat structure in front of them. Now passengers are often advised to hold their legs and/or place their feet flat on the floor, preferably farther back than their knees, and, where possible, to place hand luggage in front of them to act as a cushion or check.
Stockport air disaster – 72 fatalities
On June 4, 1967, a Canadair C-4 Argonaut flown by British Midland Airways crashed near the centre of Stockport, a few miles shy of its destination, Manchester Airport.
The plane, which had taken off from Palma de Mallorca, had 79 passengers and five crew on board, 72 of whom were killed. Two of its four engines cut out on the approach, due to fuel starvation caused by a flaw in the system, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable and falling fast. That there were no injuries on the ground was a minor miracle. The plane smashed into a patch of empty ground at Hopes Carr, in an otherwise densely populated area and close to the town’s police station, town hall and hospital. Rescue efforts were reportedly hampered by a crowd of around 10,000 drawn to the site, but 12 people, including Harry Marlow, the captain, were rescued before the aircraft burst into flames, and many civilian volunteers showed immense bravery in assisting the effort.
In a cockpit recording of the final moments before the accident, Marlow, 41, in his conversation with air traffic control, showed incredible poise during what must have been a truly harrowing ordeal. His calmness is even more remarkable given that he had been on duty for nearly 13 hours; the flight crew’s tiredness was also highlighted by investigators as a contributing factor. Listen to the audio here.
It was determined that those who perished in the front of the plane were killed by rapid deceleration injuries, while fatalities at the back were more likely down to crushing injuries to lower legs that prevented escape. Had the plane’s bracing bars been adequately strong, investigators said, many more would have been able to flee the wreck.
For a fuller account of the crash, including quotes from eyewitnesses, read this excellent Manchester Evening News report.
Iberia Airlines Flight 062 – 37 fatalities
Exactly five months after the Stockport Air Disaster, 37 people perished after a Sud Aviation Caravelle flown by Iberia Airlines flew into the southern slope of Blackdown Hill in West Sussex.
Having departed Malaga Airport, the aircraft was on approach to Heathrow when it clipped trees before skidding across a field, killing 88 grazing sheep, disintegrating, and ploughing into a garage outside Upper Black Down House. Nobody survived.
Investigators could not determine why the aircraft didn’t stick to its assigned flight level, while audio recordings showed nothing untoward and there was no evidence of any failure in the aircraft itself. One theory is that the flight crew misread their altitude meter, which warns pilots when the altitude falls below 10,000 feet. “With this type of altimeter it is not difficult to read an indication of 6,000ft as 16,000ft if particular note is not made of the position of the 10,000ft pointer,” the investigation report stated.
Ariana Afghan Airlines Flight 701 – 50 fatalities
Afghanistan’s oldest airline was involved in this 1969 accident, which saw a Boeing 727 with 62 people on board crash into a house on its approach to Gatwick. Pilot error was blamed – flap adjustments caused the nose to pitch downwards and the aircraft to descend too quickly. By the time the flight crew realised, the plane was too close to the ground to correct the mistake.
The flight had left Kabul and made stops in Kandahar, Istanbul and Frankfurt before preparing to touch down at the Crawley airport in the early hours of the morning. The temperature was below freezing and there was heavy fog, with visibility down to between 50 and 500 metres. As the aircraft passed over the village of Fernhill, just under two miles from Gatwick, it clipped the top of trees in the garden of a home of Peeks Brook Lane, and left tyre marks on the roof on another house. The house opposite had is chimney knocked off but it failed to clear Longfield, the home of William and Ann Jones. It was destroyed, and the couple died, but – amazingly – their baby survived with minor injuries after the sides of her cot collapsed, “forming a protective tent under one of the engines”.
A rescue centre was set up outside a neighbouring property and while 50 died in the disaster, 14 of those on board, including the captain, first officer and flight engineer, survived.
Staines Air Disaster – 118 fatalities
In June 1972, 118 people died when the pilots of a British European Airways Trident crashed shortly after takeoff from Heathrow, bound for Brussels. It came down in Staines, Middlesex, narrowly missing a busy main road, in what remains the deadliest air accident to take place in the UK (as opposed to terrorist incident, see below).
There was no cockpit voice recorder at the time, but the veteran captain and young co-pilot were suspected of being distracted by an argument between them over strike action. A walk-out by pilots had caused disagreements among crew members, as well as disrupting services, and the captain, Stanley Key, was seen arguing with a colleague just hours before departure.
Conditions were problematic, with a strong crosswind, turbulence, heavy rain and low cloud. Captain Key also made reference to an unspecified “technical problem” just before departure.
The aircraft suffered a deep stall three minutes after taking off, after the flight crew failed to maintain the correct speed and to configure high-lift devices on the wing correctly.
“We were out with the dog and I looked up and saw the plane,” said 13-year-old Trevor Burke, who witnessed the crash with his brother Paul, nine. “It was just coming out of the mist when the engines stalled and it seemed it glided down. It was just like a dream. The plane just fell out of the sky. We just about saw it hit the ground… because it was right in a clump of trees. When it did hit the ground the front bit hit first and the back bit was just blown away.”
Air traffic controllers did not spot the plane disappear from radar and emergency services were only made aware of the accident 15 minutes later, when the boys alerted a nurse that lived nearby. Eventually 55 emergency vehicles attended the crash site. Two passengers were found alive, but one, a young girl, died at the scene, and the other on arrival at Ashford Hospital. A total of 118 perished.
An inquest laid much of the blame on Captain Key, but also highlighted the inexperience of the co-pilot, who was just 22 and had only 29 hours of flying experience.
Cockpit recorders were installed in all UK-registers planes after the disaster.
British Airtours Flight 28M – 55 fatalities
On August 22, 1985, a Boeing 737–236 operated by British Airtours and bound for Corfu suffered an engine failure as it departed Manchester Airport. A loud bang was heard as the aircraft barrelled down the runway, prompting the flight crew – who believed a tyre had burst – to abort the takeoff and activate the reverse thrusters. Warning lights, along with communication from the control tower, quickly informed them that one of the engines had in fact failed, and burst into flames, and an evacuation was ordered.
Problems were soon encountered. The fire rendered the aft exits unusable, and efforts to open the right front exit door failed, due to a fault in the emergency slide system. The passenger seated at the right overwing exit, meanwhile, had difficulty operating that door – at the time there was no requirement for those sat in emergency rows to receive a briefing on how to do so. The position of the overwing exit, directly above a seat, forcing passengers to manoeuvre awkwardly to use it, further hindered the evacuation.
Fire penetrated the rear of the plane, through the floor, within a minute of the plane coming to a halt; fire and inhalation of toxic smoke caused all of the 55 deaths, with most of the bodies found close to the overwing exit.
The disaster prompted major changes to seating design close to emergency exits, the introduction of fire-resistant seat covers, walls and ceiling panels, as well as floor lighting, more on-board fire extinguishers, and clearer evacuation procedures.