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1972: UK's worst air crash kills 118

VIDEO : Rescuers forced to flee burning wreckage

All 118 people on board a flight from London Heathrow to Brussels have died when the airliner crashed minutes after take-off.

The British European Airways plane came down in a field in Staines, missing the town centre by just a few hundred yards. It is the worst disaster in British aviation history.

The Trident jet - which had been involved in another accident in 1968 - left Heathrow at 1708 BST and was only three miles (4.8 km) from the airport when witnesses said it "dropped out of the sky".

The airline said it did not know what had caused flight BE548 to crash, but BEA chairman Henry Marking told reporters there was "no reason" to suspect sabotage.


"There was a thud like a clap of thunder"

Witness Adrian Bailey

Witnesses said the three-engined plane broke into two as it fell - the fuselage ploughed into trees bordering a reservoir and the tail section landed 50 yards (45.7 m) away.

"I heard the plane circling overhead and there was a spluttering sound as though the engines were cutting out - then there was a thud like a clap of thunder," said 15-year-old Adrian Bailey.

Rescuers pulled two people alive from the wreckage of the airliner - a young girl, who died at the scene, and a Dublin businessman who was taken to a local hospital where he died a few hours later.

Heathrow airport Catholic chaplain Father Peter Knott reached the site of the crash within 10 minutes and said it was a scene of total devastation.

"There was chaos inside the aircraft - it looked as if everybody had been killed instantaneously," he said.

In Context
An inquiry by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch said a speed error had caused the plane to stall. The aircraft was not at a sufficient height for the crew to regain control.

A post mortem examination on pilot Stanley Key found he was suffering from a heart condition which was likely to be causing him some pain immediately prior to the crash.

The investigation concluded this had probably impaired the judgement of the captain which led to him making a fatal error not noticed by the other crew until too late.

It remained the UK's worst air accident until December 1988 when a Pan Am jet was bombed over Lockerbie.


See Also
1972: Memories of the Staines air crash

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