Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Hero BA pilot speaks of Heathrow Boeing 777 crash

'I thought it was my time to die'

The former British Airways pilot whose Boeing 777 airliner crash-landed at Heathrow Airport two years ago has said he feared all onboard would die.

Captain Peter Burkill told the BBC he had to stop the jet crashing into a Tube station near the runway.

He and his co-pilot were hailed as heroes for avoiding a disaster.

An investigation into the crash has found the plane lost power because fuel flowing into the engines had become restricted by a build up of ice.

In his first interview since the accident, Mr Burkill said he continued to be affected on a daily basis by what had happened.

No warning

The airliner, which had 152 people on board, came down short of Heathrow's southern runway - but inside the airfield perimeter - on 17 January 2008.

Mr Burkill said: "I always think about it - as well as my wife - it will probably never leave me."

He told the BBC's transport correspondent Tom Symonds that the plane lost power just as it was landing.

He said: "It was about 35 seconds until we were due to touch down and it was about 500ft (152.4m) - when we were just passing the north-side of Hounslow Heath, we were about two miles (3.22km) from the landing runway when we became aware there was a problem."

There had been no warning until that point that there was failure with the power in both of the plane's engines and Mr Burkill said the Boeing's pilots were initially in disbelief.

The Boeing 777 which crashed at Heathrow (file pic: 2008)
Captain Peter Burkill said he had to make split second decisions

"It naturally became apparent that we were going to crash and we were not going to make the runway".

He said since he was the captain, it was fairly important for him to begin to react immediately in order to ensure nobody died because of the crash.

"My view of that accident from that point was that we were going to start descending very quickly - about an 1,800 ft (548.64m) descent rate and I could see the impact point was going to be around about the Hatton Cross area which includes catering buildings, a Tube station and a petrol station," he said.

He told co-pilot John Coward to continue flying the plane while Mr Burkill tried to find out the cause of the problem in a bid to try to fix it. He said the priority was to get the plane over any buildings and away from the Heathrow perimeter road.

It was a situation none of those on board had trained for and he said the atmosphere in the cockpit was quiet as everyone concentrated on getting the plane to land safely.

"I had no time to communicate any decisions with my crew," Mr Burkill said.

He decided to use a non-standard procedure and in a bid to reduce the drag force as the plane touched down, took the decision to raise the plane's landing flaps.

John Coward and Peter Burkill (file pic: 2008)
Pilots John Coward and Peter Burkill were hailed as heroes at the time

He said: "When I realised we were coming in far too steeply with the loss of power and we were heading towards the buildings, I had to reduce the drag, and as we were going to crash on ground, I needed the [landing] gear.

"The gear was going to take most of the brunt of the crash so I daren't raise that up."

His only other decision was to raise the flaps by one setting which would reduce the drag from the wings, but he said there was a risk with doing that as it could change the "stall margins" and the plane could have fallen out of the sky.

But by reducing the drag, the rate of descent decreased and the plane was no longer at risk of hitting the buildings.

He said when the plane hit the ground he reverted from being the captain and became just like all the other passengers.

He coughed as he said: "We were now in an aircraft on the ground that was sliding uncontrollably and at that point I thought I was going to die, so I said goodbye to my wife."

After the plane stopped, he looked around at his two co-pilots and when they realised none of them were injured, they could not initially believe it.

However Mr Burkill said his next priority was to carry out an evacuation of the aircraft as there was still the fear a fire could break out.

I'm a tried and tested emergency pilot
Peter Burkill

However the final report into the Heathrow crash by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has said that no fault could be attached to the pilots, who had completed proper procedures.

The official accident report said the crash happened after the plane lost power because there was a restricted "fuel flow" to both its engines caused by a build-up of ice.

The investigators have made several safety recommendations which follow on from an initial set of recommendations made in September last year.

Mr Burkill, who took voluntary redundancy from British Airways last year, said he was still looking for a new flying role.

He said: "I did a good job on the the day and I believe with the best outcome which has not been proved wrong - and it's never been bettered, so I'm a tried and tested emergency pilot"

He said he had received letters of thanks from some of the passengers on board, but said he and his co-pilot had just been doing their jobs.

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