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Page last updated at 14:39 GMT, Monday, 23 August 2010 15:39 UK
Lessons learned from 1985 Manchester runway disaster
Scene of Manchester runway disaster
Fifty-five people died when the Boeing 737 caught fire at Manchester Airport in 1985

It was a "defining moment in the history of civil aviation history."

When a British Airtours flight to Corfu burst into flames on the runway at Manchester Airport 25 years ago, 55 people died.

Following a major campaign to learn the lessons of the disaster, sweeping changes have been made to improve passenger safety.

An aviation expert said he believed that "the likelihood of it happening again is quite remote."


At 0612 hrs on 22 August 1985, a flight carrying 131 passengers and 6 crew on a charter flight to Corfu was beginning its take-off from Manchester when an engine suddenly failed.

positioning an aircraft on fire downwind of the fuselage
more windsocks on the airfield to indicate wind direction
providing the flight crew with an external view of the aircraft
unobstructed access to emergency exits
strengthening of external fuel tank access panels
aircraft cabin materials to be fire retardant

Part of the engine punctured a wing fuel tank and the leaking fuel quickly ignited, creating a large plume of fire.

As the pilot taxied off the runway, the prevailing wind carried the flames onto the fuselage where the passengers were sitting.

As a result, 53 passengers and two crew members died, almost all from breathing in smoke.

According to aviation analyst Chris Yates, lessons learned from that day changed the airline industry forever.

"This was very much a defining moment in the history of civil aviation safety," he said.

"Specifically, the investigation found that a lot of materials inside the passenger cabin produced highly toxic fumes and required airlines to look again and re-invent the wheel, so to speak."

Adding: "One of the other factors was the direction of the wind and how it was fanning the flames from the engine over the fuselage, which was one of the prime reasons why the passenger cabin caught fire so quickly."

'Time and space'

So have the lessons from the Manchester runway disaster been learned and have they saved lives?

In the years that followed, the Civil Aviation Authority adopted many of the Air Accidents Investigation (AAIB) recommendations which were supported by SCISAFE, a campaign group set up by relatives of some of the victims.

William Beckett from Sheffield started the group after his 18-year-old daughter Sarah died in the disaster.

He said the key "time and space" recommendations of the investigation were made in response to dangerous flaws in aircraft design.

"There was insufficient space for people to exit the aircraft," he said.

"And there was insufficient time - because of the chronic toxic fumes - to make their way to those exits."

Smoke hoods

SCISAFE also campaigned in vain for the introduction of smoke hoods - to allow passengers to breathe in the event of a fire.

Safety has got an awful lot better in the last 25 years. So the likelihood of this type of incident happening again is quite remote.
Chris Yates, aviation analyst

"I think it's far more important that people can get off the aircraft and that's where we concentrated out energies for the 15 years that we campaigned for it," he explained.

"Now it's the case that aircraft [which experience a fire during take-off] must pull up on the runway as quickly as possible and that the direction of the wind is crucial.

"If the pilot had pulled up in a straight line on the runway then the vast majority, if not all, would have got off."

Adding: "At least it means that, in the future, we are going to be safer."

Chris Yates admitted that "it would make eminent sense to supply smoke hoods," but said they were ruled out for two reasons.

"One is the element of panic, the other is element of cost. And when we're talking about aviation safety, cost does come into that equation.

"But, you know, safety has got an awful lot better in the last 25 years," he said.

"So the likelihood of this type of incident happening again is quite remote."


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