A Lonely and Courageous Action: The story of BOAC flight 712
On the 8th of April 1968, hundreds of residents in towns west of London watched in horror as a Boeing 707 streaked low overhead, flames streaming from its left wing. As passengers cowered before the immense heat of the blaze, the pilots fought to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible, lining up for a rapid emergency landing on Heathrow Airport’s runway 05R, slotting it in for a flawless approach even as the №2 engine fell from the wing over the village of Thorpe. Moments later, BOAC flight 712 touched down and rolled safely to a stop — only for the left wing to explode, sending smoke and fire ripping through the cabin as the 127 passengers and crew tried desperately to escape. As four available exits fell to just one, the flight attendants ushered the passengers out by any means possible, pressured by a spreading inferno which the firefighters couldn’t seem to knock down. In the end, almost everyone made it — except for four passengers in the rear of the plane, and a brave young stewardess, 22-year-old Jane Harrison, who went back into the blazing cabin in a last-ditch attempt to save them.
Although investigators would later uncover mistakes by the crew that worsened the blaze, and laid bare the failings of the ill-equipped emergency response, the disaster at Heathrow would ultimately be remembered not so much for the safety improvements it inspired, but for the self-sacrifice of Jane Harrison, an act which posthumously earned her Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery. What follows is a retelling of both stories — the human and the mechanical — and the ways in which they were irrevocably woven together.
In 1968, international air travel still bore some resemblance to the original form pioneered in the 1930s and 1940s, featuring marathon around-the-world journeys with numerous stops in famous cities along the way, connecting the globe in a way which at that time had not yet quite lost its novelty. In the United Kingdom, these long haul flights, now operated under the unified British Airways brand, were then still the purview of a separate stated-owned company called the British Overseas Airways Corporation, or BOAC, which served intercontinental routes to complement the intra-European services offered by its sister company, British European Airways. The two companies would not be combined to form today’s British Airways until 1974.
Among BOAC’s regular routes was a long haul service from London to Sydney, Australia, designated flight 712. Operated by a four-engine Boeing 707, the flight normally made en-route stops in Zürich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Mumbai, and Singapore, both to take on more fuel and swap passengers, which made the London-Sydney service run to 36 hours, nearly 80% longer than today. Were a modern traveler to go back in time to experience these flights, they would notice a number of other surprising differences as well, from the almost complete absence of airport security to the relative lack of baggage space, as overhead bins were not yet commonplace, and the open racks above the passengers heads’ could be used for little more than a spare hat or jacket.
On April 8th, 1968, the crew and passengers of BOAC flight 712 reported to London’s Heathrow Airport for the marathon journey to Sydney. There were 116 passengers in total, not all of whom were going all the way: although many of them were Australians, or Britons emigrating to Australia, others were scheduled to disembark somewhere along the way, such as Katriel Katz, the former Israeli ambassador to the USSR, and Esther Cohen, a 70-year-old pensioner in a wheelchair, both headed to Tel Aviv. Also on board was famous British pop star Mark Wynter, who was heading to Australia to get married. Many of those on the flight were bringing their children, and a sizable minority of the occupants, if not an outright majority, had never been on an airplane before.
Joining the passengers were 11 crewmembers, including no less than five pilots. In command was 47-year-old Captain Charles “Cliff” Taylor, a New Zealand-born pilot with nearly 15,000 hours of experience. Today was an examination day for him, and so another captain, 50-year-old Geoffrey Moss, was also on board to conduct a route check, observing the process of the flight to ensure that the crew adhered to standard operating procedures. Moss sat in the jump seat behind Taylor, while the right seat was occupied by 32-year-old First Officer Brendan Kirkland. Behind Kirkland at the flight engineer’s station was 35-year-old Flight Engineer Thomas Hicks, who was not inexperienced, but was new to the 707, with just 191 hours on the type. And finally, there was Second Officer (or Acting First Officer) John Hutchinson, who occupied the unique position of pilot observer. BOAC at that time had an unusual practice of scheduling an “extra pilot” on all its long-haul flights who had no specific duties except to monitor the crew and point out anything which he thought was important. Normally Hutchinson would have sat in the jump seat behind the Captain, but that seat was taken by check Captain Moss, so Hutchinson instead sat in the navigator’s position at the back of the cockpit, which was otherwise unoccupied, as the need for a navigator had been superseded sometime between the 707’s design phase and its actual entry into service.
The other six crewmembers consisted of flight attendants positioned at the front, center, and rear of the passenger cabin. The Chief Steward, Neville Davis-Gordon, was backed up by stewards Bryan Taylor and Andrew McCarthy, and stewardesses Rosalind Unwin, Jennifer Suares, and Barbara Jane Harrison (known universally as Jane). McCarthy and Unwin were positioned at the front; Taylor and Harrison at the back; and Davis-Gordon and Suares in seats 10D and 10E adjacent to the right-hand overwing exits.
At 22 years old, Jane Harrison was the youngest crewmember on flight 712. She had worked hard to build up her resume in time to be selected for the position as soon as she reached the minimum age of 21, and she was said to have shown great enthusiasm not only for her job, but for everything in life — if she wanted something, she would take it. In fact, she was not originally scheduled to serve on flight 712, but had specifically requested it, officially so that she could attend a wedding in Australia, although her friends could not recall her knowing anyone who was getting married in Australia at that time, and some thought the real reason was that she had started dating a Qantas pilot. In any case, she was there because she wanted to be, and she apparently had plenty to live for.
After all passengers were on board, all pre-flight checks carried out, all paperwork deposited, and all appropriate clearances received, BOAC flight 712 lined up on runway 28L at Heathrow and began its takeoff roll. The engines spooled up normally and the plane accelerated away, becoming airborne at 16:27. But that was as long as the sense of normalcy lasted, because almost as soon as the plane lifted off the runway, the №2 engine violently exploded.
Inside the engine, located at the inboard position on the left wing, the 5th-stage low pressure compressor disk utterly disintegrated, launching chunks of debris at incredible speed in all directions. Pieces of the disk burst forth from the compressor casing, ripped through critical engine support systems, blasted off the right side of the engine cowling, and carried on into space, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The engine immediately stopped generating power, but even worse, the explosion disconnected the engine’s main fuel supply line, causing jet fuel to pour through into the combustion chamber, where it instantly ignited.
In the cabin, a loud bang drew the attention of passengers and crew alike, and within seconds, people seated on the left side of the plane began to call out that the engine was on fire. In the cockpit, the pilots heard the bang too, and the №2 thrust lever snapped back toward idle. Captain Taylor immediately closed the №2 throttle and called for the engine failure drill, a procedure which each crewmember had committed to memory. Simultaneously, the landing gear warning horn began to blare, as the low altitude, retracted gear, and thrust lever at idle fulfilled the warning conditions. First Officer Kirkland, Captain Taylor, and check Captain Moss all tried to reach over to cancel the alarm, but while Taylor managed to pull the right switch, Kirkland accidentally pressed the fire bell cancel button instead.
As the engine was, in fact, on fire, the fire warning bell should have sounded, but it did not, because Kirkland was pressing down on the cancel button. Instead, a red warning light illuminated next to the №2 engine fire shutoff handle. Pulling this handle outward would simultaneously cut the flow of fuel and hydraulic fluid to the engine, and activate its built-in fire extinguisher. Flight Engineer Hicks initially reached for the handle, but then apparently changed his mind or became distracted and did not pull it, perhaps realizing that he was not carrying out the engine fire drill, but the engine failure drill, which did not call for him to pull the fire handle, and besides, he had not heard a fire bell.
Moments later, however, check Captain Moss glanced back out the left side cockpit window and discovered that not only was the №2 engine indeed on fire, but that the fire was already spreading rapidly, engulfing the engine nacelle, pylon, and parts of the wing itself. Realizing that they were in a dire emergency, he urged Captain Taylor to return to the airport as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, Taylor spotted the warning light next to the №2 fire shutoff handle and ordered an engine fire drill.
As Captain Taylor began to turn the plane around, First Officer Kirkland declared an emergency to air traffic control, and Flight Engineer Hicks switched over from the engine failure drill to the engine fire drill. Having already completed the memorized portion of the procedure, known as phase I, he picked up the written engine fire checklist and started from phase II, not realizing that he had made a critical omission — namely, that the memory items he had completed were those for an engine failure, not an engine fire, and that phase I of the fire drill contained the extra step of pulling the fire handle, which he still had not done.
Because the fire handle had not been pulled, the №2 fuel shutoff valve in the wing was still wide open, allowing the №2 fuel pump to continue forcing fuel through the broken feed pipe at a rate of 227 liters per minute. This vast fuel supply caused the fire to greatly increase in size and intensity, until it seemed half the wing was aflame, blazing like a beacon as the 707 banked into a wide left turn over the outskirts of London. Passengers on the left side of the plane could already feel the radiant heat pouring off the fire, forcing them to lean as far to the right as possible to escape the unbearable conditions, even as the flight attendants urged them to stay in their seats with their seat belts fastened.
On the ground, the burning 707 began to draw the attention of astonished passersby, who shouted and pointed at the stricken plane, gathering at their windows or on the street to watch as it passed low overhead, leveling momentarily at 3,000 feet before it began to descend. Among the witnesses was Prince Philip, who followed the 707 using his binoculars from the grounds of Windsor Castle, eight kilometers west of Heathrow.
As he and countless others looked on with bated breath, the fire continued to grow until the engine pylon lost its structural rigidity, and the №2 engine entirely broke free of the wing, plunging downward in the aircraft’s wake, wreathed in flame. An amateur photographer managed to catch a lucky photo of the moment of its separation, shown above. Several young boys observing the plane from the gravel works in the village of Thorpe thought for a moment that the engine would hit them, but it mercifully did not, plunging seconds later into a flooded gravel pit instead.
At the airport, controllers hurried to accommodate the stricken jet. The crash alarm sounded in Heathrow’s two fire stations, but the controller was not yet sure where flight 712 would land or where to send the fire trucks. He initially assumed the flight would come back around to land on runway 28L, the same runway from which it took off, but on board the plane, the pilots had other ideas. Keenly aware that their left wing could disintegrate at any moment, they made the snap decision to land on runway 05R instead, which would shorten their approach pattern. As Captain Taylor negotiated the plane through a steep, high-speed left turn to line up for landing, onlookers held their breath, and the controller issued a blanket clearance to land on any runway.
Upon learning that the plane was coming in to 05R, the controller sent the emergency vehicles out to this runway, but only the contingent from the sub-station at the center of the airport, consisting of two foam trucks and their water tenders, was able to proceed directly to the threshold. The rest of the vehicles had to proceed from the main fire station at the north end, which required them to cross the active runway 28R, where several planes were presently on approach. Before the vehicles could enter the runway, the controller intervened and ordered multiple flights to go around. Only once they were safely climbing away did the fire trucks roar onto the runway with sirens blaring.
As First Officer Kirkland and Flight Engineer Hicks continued to run through the emergency procedures, check Captain Moss provided continuous updates on the progress of the fire, and Captain Taylor held the plane steady and sent it straight as an arrow toward runway 05R. On final approach the hydraulics began to fail, and when the crew extended the flaps they stopped three degrees short of fully deployed, but the landing gear came down normally, and Taylor was able to flare for a near-perfect touchdown.
Just three minutes and 32 seconds after it took off, BOAC flight 712 was back on the ground, rolling down runway 05R. This was the shortest runway at Heathrow and would not normally have been used by a 707, but enough hydraulic pressure remained for the brakes and thrust reversers to bring the plane safely to a stop about two thirds of the way down the strip.
Before the plane had even stopped moving, flight attendants Neville Davis-Gordon and Jennifer Suares opened the two right overwing exits, knowing that there was no reason to wait for an official evacuation order. Once the plane stopped, the other flight attendants leapt into action as well, opening both forward doors, as well as the R2 door at the back. The L2 door across from it, and the left overwing exits, were not used because they were too close to the flames, although a passenger apparently opened one of the overwing exits anyway, only to think better of going through it.
At that time, aircraft escape slides had to be manually mounted before they could be inflated, and at first the two forward flight attendants, Andrew McCarthy and Rosalind Unwin, had trouble getting theirs to sit properly. As passengers began to hurry out onto the right wing through the overwing exits, there was initially no movement through the main exits at all. And at the back, Bryan Taylor and Jane Harrison were having problems of their own, as the R2 slide had deployed improperly. After a brief back-and-forth about who would go down to fix it, they concluded that adjusting the slide was Taylor’s job, while Harrison would remain on board. It was a decision that would haunt Taylor for the rest of his life.
As passengers began to move through the four exits on the right side of the plane, the two fire trucks from the nearby sub-station arrived at the scene, having followed the aircraft down the runway after landing. Although they arrived only a few seconds after the plane came to a stop, they faced an uphill battle trying to control a fire which was already large and still growing rapidly. As flames surrounded the left wing, the two foam tenders positioned themselves behind the tail, only to discover that this put the fire out of range of their roof-mounted cannons. And to make matters worse, the antiquated vehicles were not capable of moving and producing foam simultaneously, an annoying design limitation that meant it would take more time than it was worth to try to reposition them closer. Instead, firefighters approached the blaze using hand lines, but in this their attempts were only further frustrated as one of the lines burst due to an error by the tender operator.
In the cockpit, the pilots ran through the engine shutdown procedures, but the process seemed to drag on — there were a lot of steps on the checklist, and they had to complete them all before they could leave the airplane. The plane, however, had other ideas. The pilots had not even managed to turn off the fuel pumps, which were still pouring fuel directly into the fire, when the left wing fuel tank exploded with a shuddering roar. The firefighters, who were still setting up their hoses, watched in awe and horror as the massive blast launched pieces of the wing clear over the top of the plane, where they rained down over the surrounding area like burning metal hail. Those passengers who had already managed to exit picked themselves up and ran for their lives.
On board the plane, the explosion sent a massive jolt through the floor, throwing people momentarily off balance. Smoke and flames suddenly poured in through a breach in the left side of the fuselage, slamming the passengers with a wall of choking, black fumes. The flight attendants knew that they had perhaps 60 to 90 seconds to get everyone off before the conditions became non-survivable, and Chief Steward Davis-Gordon rose to the moment, keeping the passengers in line with sternly shouted commands, maintaining a powerful sense of both calm and authority.
Even so, however, the situation was beginning to deteriorate. Fuel thrown from the left wing tanks by the explosion was now burning underneath the fuselage and right wing, further reducing the avenues of escape. Eighteen passengers had managed to evacuate through the overwing exits before fire rose up around the wing on both sides, forcing Davis-Gordon and Suares to turn the remaining passengers away — including a pair of women who had already walked out onto the wing, only to be dragged back inside by Davis-Gordon as the flames advanced before them. Everyone in the center section who had not yet evacuated was instead urged toward the front of the plane, with Davis-Gordon and Suares following behind them. As they left, the two flight attendants looked one last time through the thickening smoke to the back of the cabin, where they caught a glimpse of Jane Harrison shepherding passengers toward the R2 door.
Once he arrived up front, Davis-Gordon’s calm conduct of the evacuation ensured that passengers exited through the R1 door at an impressive clip, one after another. His words were soon backed up by actions, as Rosalind Unwin physically threw down an elderly woman who hesitated at the top of the slide. Backup also arrived in the form of Second Officer Hutchinson, Captain Taylor, and Flight Engineer Hicks, who abandoned the flight deck following the explosion. First Officer Kirkland, seeing that the galley was getting crowded, opened the right side cockpit window, deployed the escape rope, and rappelled to the ground.
While Hutchinson helped the flight attendants push passengers out the R1 door, check Captain Moss spotted a gap in the flow of passengers and made his exit down the slide. Hicks, meanwhile, noticed that the L1 door on the left side was not being used because its slide had deployed improperly, so he climbed down to fix it. Unfortunately, just seconds after he got it into position, the heat from the fire caused it to burst, and it deflated. Nevertheless, one stubborn passenger was cowed neither by Davis-Gordon’s assertive voice nor the long drop: the former Israeli ambassador, Katriel Katz. Although several crewmembers attempted to stop him, he managed to push through them and threw himself from the open L1 door, only to land hard on the asphalt below, breaking his leg in the process.
At the back of the plane, flight attendants Taylor and Harrison had become completely cut off from the rest of the crew by smoke and flames, leaving them on their own. After climbing down from the R2 door, Taylor managed to get the slide into its proper upright position, only to discover that he couldn’t re-enter the aircraft. Instead, he remained at the bottom of the slide helping passengers away from the plane while Harrison remained on board, trying to evacuate the small number of passengers who were stuck aft of the wings, unable to move forward to the R1 door as most others had done. She managed to get just five of them down the slide before it caught fire and burst, cutting off their only safe escape route. As toxic smoke and intense heat bore down on the crumbling tail section, Harrison knew that those who remained had only one choice: to jump from the open doorway. At her urging, five more people, including a family with children, jumped from the R2 door into the waiting arms of Bryan Taylor.
Up front, the last of the passengers slid down from the R1 door, emerging from the smoke-filled cabin coughing and covered in ash. Captain Taylor and Second Officer Hutchinson pressed into the first class section, calling for anyone who might still be on board, but there was no reply. By then, fire surrounded the plane, the floor boards were buckling beneath their feet, and the smoke was so thick that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. They had no choice but to turn away, escaping via the cockpit window, while flight attendants Neville Davis-Gordon, Andrew McCarthy, Jennifer Suares, and Rosalind Unwin left via the R1 slide. More explosions rocked the plane as they departed.
What they did not know was that four passengers were still on the plane, trapped in the burning tail section, trying desperately to claw their way toward an ever-narrowing window of survival. The only person who knew they were there was Jane Harrison. For a moment, she was seen silhouetted in the frame of the R2 door, seemingly ready to jump out — only for her to turn away, heading back into the scorching blackness, never to be seen again.
As the last passengers were leaving, the rest of the fire trucks arrived from the main fire station, and full-scale firefighting efforts finally began. Not everything went smoothly: although a foam tender pulled up in range of the right wing and was able to beat back the flames, preventing the right hand fuel tanks from exploding, the operation elsewhere was less successful, as another hose broke and a third could not be connected to the airport’s hydrant system. Consequently, several of the water tenders ran empty, and for a period of approximately one minute no water or foam was being applied to the fire at all. Several firefighters attempted to enter the cabin to fight the fire there, but they had not been given proper protective clothing, and were driven back by the intense heat. The blaze was only extinguished once the London Fire Brigade arrived in force some minutes later, by which time much of the plane had been gutted, its back broken with its badly damaged tail section lying askew on the ground. Although it was an indictment of the firefighting capabilities of Heathrow Airport, this series of errors and malfunctions occurred after conditions inside the plane became incompatible with survival, and probably did not cost any lives.
When news of the crash first hit Britain’s evening airwaves, there was initially some confusion over how many people, if any, had died in the accident. One BBC report, evidently based on hastily transmitted photographs of the burning wreckage taken well after the evacuation was over, proclaimed that there were “no expected survivors,” and another stated that 100 people had died (a reminder of why reporters today are taught not to speculate about death tolls until official numbers are provided).
At the airport, BOAC personnel were trying to get an accurate count, but while many passengers had been taken to the airline lounge or to area hospitals, where they could easily be tallied, quite a few of those who ran from the plane simply never stopped, fleeing the airport grounds entirely before making their way home by whatever means happened to be available. This led to several absurd incidents, such as one involving Second Officer Hutchinson, who called his wife from an airport telephone to report that he was safe, only for another call to come in minutes later from a BOAC representative, who regretfully informed Mrs. Hutchinson that her husband was missing. Had the calls come in the other way around, considerable anxiety would surely have resulted, and indeed in some other cases it did.
Only by sending teams into the charred wreckage after the fire was extinguished could officials confirm exactly how many people had died. Although for the most part they found empty seats, the back of the plane was another story. The bodies of five people were found just inside the R2 door, huddled together on the floor where they had fallen, overcome by toxic smoke as they made their way to the exit in the disaster’s final moments. One of them was Ethel Cohen, the wheelchair-bound woman who had been seated in one of the rearmost rows and could not move unaided. Two other women had perished with her, as well as an eight-year-old girl, who had been ripped from the arms of her brother in the chaos of the evacuation. And finally, there was the 22-year-old stewardess Jane Harrison, who had gone back to save them, only for the inferno to overtake them all. The details of her last moments will never be known for certain, but from the positions of the bodies, it is thought that Harrison was trying to drag Mrs. Cohen toward the exit when she was overcome.
In the end, these five were the only fatalities — the other 122 occupants had escaped in just 90 seconds or less. Eleven left via the R2 door, 18 via the right overwing exits, two by the L1 door, 88 by the R1 door, and three by the cockpit window. (The graphic above, from Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1” provides slightly different figures, but these are incorrect, as I explained in the caption.) This was, all things considered, a remarkable achievement, especially since nearly three quarters of the survivors left via a single exit, far exceeding the manufacturer’s expectations.
Within the first 24 hours of the accident, a major investigation was launched, led by the Board of Trade Accidents Investigation Branch, the predecessor of today’s AAIB. The inquiry focused on three areas: the initial engine failure, the actions of the crew in response to the fire, and the factors affecting occupant survival after the emergency landing.
Regarding the first of these three questions, there are unfortunately no clear answers.
The №2 engine was recovered from the flooded gravel pit in Thorpe, and pieces of the 5th stage low pressure compressor disk, engine casing, and cowling were found near the airport boundary beyond the end of runway 28L. These items were then examined for signs of pre-existing damage, and indeed, a fatigue crack was discovered near where the web of the disk expanded to form the rim, having grown progressively with each flight cycle until the disk abruptly disintegrated. This struck investigators as odd, because the 5th stage low pressure compressor disk was fairly new, having failed well short of the average service life of similar disks.
In search of some reason for this premature failure, investigators delved into the history of the engine, and of the airplane itself, which was known as “Whiskey Echo,” after the last two letters of its registration, G-ARWE. Interestingly, this was not the first time Whiskey Echo had been involved in an accident due to an engine failure and fire: a very similar incident occurred as the plane was taking off from Honolulu in 1967. In that accident, the pilots aborted the takeoff on the runway and all the passengers escaped, but the №4 engine was destroyed, and the resulting fire caused major damage to the right wing, necessitating extensive repairs. However, there did not seem to be any connection between this incident and the tragedy aboard flight 712, since all of Whiskey Echo’s engines had been swapped out following the accident in Honolulu.
The engine which failed had been attached to Whiskey Echo for less than a year, but prior to that it had its own sordid history. In 1965, the engine was removed from another 707 due to excessive vibrations and underwent repairs. Heavy vibrations in the vicinity of the high pressure compressor were detected again in 1967 during an acceptance test following an engine overhaul, but BOAC’s calculations suggested that the magnitude of the vibrations was below the manufacturer’s limit, and the engine was returned to service. Investigators wondered whether the vibrations could have been connected to the disk’s premature failure, but in the end no clear connection between the two was identified.
What they did find were two missed opportunities in which BOAC could have incidentally prevented the accident. First of all, the engine overhaul involved the removal and refurbishment of the low pressure compressor section, but it notably did not require that the compressor disks be checked for cracks. (Today, rotating engine components are usually inspected for cracks every time they are removed from an engine, regardless of the reason.) And second, the calculations used to justify the engine’s return to service were incorrect — had they been done properly, investigators found, the engine probably would have failed its acceptance test, and would never have been installed on Whiskey Echo in the first place.
Regardless of the reason, it was apparent that the disk reached its breaking point on flight 712, resulting in an uncontained engine failure which sent pieces of the disk through the engine’s protective casing. This resulted in the displacement of the main fuel feed pipe, sparking the fire. However, observations of the cockpit instruments after the accident strongly suggested that there was more to the story. Curiously, the fire shutoff handles were all found still in the stowed positions, the fuel cutout switches were all set to “open,” and the fuel boost pump switches were still set to “on” — almost as though none of the pilots even knew the engine was on fire. Examinations of the related systems proved that no one ever pulled the №2 fire shutoff handle, which would have closed off the №2 fuel feed pipe, nor did anyone turn off the boost pump that was forcing fuel into it. In fact, the boost pumps only stopped operating some 30 seconds after the plane came to a stop, when the explosion destroyed the circuits which powered them.
Investigators did note that the engine’s built in fire extinguisher had been activated, but this occurred when the heat of the fire tripped its discharge cartridge automatically, presumably after the blaze was well underway. The extinguisher was unfortunately ineffective, as the fuel supply was never removed, and the absence of much of the engine cowling meant that the extinguishing agent was quickly dispersed by the wind.
The pilots, of course, were all alive to be interviewed, and it was clear from their testimony that they did know the engine was on fire. Why, then, did no one pull the №2 fire shutoff handle, allowing massive amounts of fuel to be fed directly into the blaze?
The answer seemed to lie in a combination of unfortunate coincidence and poor procedural design. The principal error belonged to Flight Engineer Hicks, who performed the memory items for an engine failure drill, then was told to switch to an engine fire drill, and in the process overlooked the necessity to go back and perform certain additional steps. However, while Hicks was new to the 707, this confusion would have been possible even if he had been more experienced. In fact, there were only two differences between the early part of the engine failure drill and phase I of the fire drill: namely, that the latter required the flight engineer to begin by cancelling the fire warning bell and end by pulling the fire shutoff handle. These two points were absent from phase I of the failure drill, but the other tasks were the same.
In the initial confusion following the failure, Hicks was unsure whether he should use the engine failure drill or the engine fire drill. By coincidence, there was no fire warning bell, because First Officer Kirkland had accidentally pressed the cancel button and was holding it down at the moment when the bell would have been triggered. There was, however, a fire warning light next to the №2 fire shutoff handle. Hicks initially reached for the handle, only to recognize that there had been no fire bell and he was being told to perform the failure drill, not the fire drill, so he withdrew his hand. This aborted attempt to pull the fire handle could have caused him to forget that he had not actually performed this step when he was later asked to switch to the fire drill.
The design of the procedure meant that there was no follow-up check which could have alerted him to the fact that the fire handle had not been pulled. In fact, the only assurance that the flight engineer would pull the fire handle was the expectation that he would remember to do so. After performing phase I from memory, he was not required to go back and re-read its contents off the written checklist, and phase II did not ask him to double check any of the actions from phase I.
A number of other circumstantial factors prevented any incidental discovery of the error. When fully pulled out, the fire handles only protruded about 1.25 centimeters, which made it easy for Captain Taylor and First Officer Kirkland to overlook the fact that the №2 handle had not been pulled. And from the flight engineer’s position, it would have been even harder to notice the relative extension of the handles, since they pointed directly toward him. Furthermore, after the engine fell from the wing, the light next to the №2 fire handle went out due to the interruption of the circuit, which is also what would happen if the handle had been pulled. Since the pilots were unaware that the engine had physically separated, the absence of the fire warning light would have been taken to mean that someone had in fact pulled the fire handle.
Although these errors undoubtedly worsened the severity of the fire, the consequences were mitigated by Captain Cliff Taylor’s incredible airmanship. Given the size of the blaze, even one or two more minutes in the air could have meant the failure of the wing and the deaths of everyone on board. Aware of this possibility, Taylor made a split-second decision to land on a small runway not normally used by jets, a decision which saved several minutes, and, probably, 122 lives. From there, he maneuvered the plane through a difficult turn, then managed to grease it onto the runway despite the fact that his hydraulics were failing and he had started the approach too high and too fast.
After the landing, however, it was the cabin crew’s turn for heroics. Faced with a rapidly spreading fire, multiple unusable exits, and a window of survivability lasting no more than two minutes, they managed to get 122 out of the 127 occupants off the plane with hardly any pushing, shoving, fighting, crowding, or other base behaviors which tend to manifest in life-or-death situations. This success was credited to the flight attendants’ assertive words and actions, from physically pushing passengers down the slides to yelling authoritative commands, which have been shown to improve passenger compliance and speed the pace of evacuations.
Unfortunately, opportunities to end the incident earlier may have been missed due to the airport’s inadequate firefighting equipment and procedures. Despite the fact that airport firefighters had been informed of the fire while the plane was still in the air, only two foam tenders had managed to get into position by the time it landed. This occurred because of the poor positioning of the airport’s main fire station, which was located at the northern edge of the field, on the opposite side of runway 28R. This meant that fire trucks from that station had to cross the active runway 28R on their way to any emergency. Even if people are actively dying aboard a burning plane, a fire truck still must wait for permission to enter an active runway, or else risk a collision. (The recent accident involving a collision between a LATAM Airbus A320 and a fire truck in Lima, Peru, in which two firefighters were killed, perfectly illustrates the consequences of failing to follow this rule.) In the event, the trucks from the main fire station were delayed by between 30 and 45 seconds while waiting for the controller to turn back the airplanes which were approaching runway 28R, and they did not arrive until the evacuation was almost over.
Had the main fire station been positioned near the center of the airport, as is common practice today, more fire trucks would have been present when the plane first came to a stop. Instead, the two foam tenders which initially responded proved insufficient, as the firefighters, having witnessed the first explosion right as they arrived, became concerned about damage to their equipment, and consequently positioned their vehicles out of range of the fire. The antiquated design of the tenders then prevented them from being moved closer without considerable time and effort. Several failures of equipment, particularly hoses, made the problem even worse. Another truck equipped with a load of CO2 extinguishant did arrive at the left wing fairly early in the course of events, but its capacity was too low to extinguish the blaze, which erupted again just as fiercely once the CO2 ran out. In retrospect, had the two foam tenders and the CO2 truck tackled the fire immediately and from close range, its power would have been greatly diminished, and the window of survival aboard the plane would have been extended.
In their final report, the members of the investigation’s firefighting operations group included a scathing critique of the firefighting capabilities at Heathrow Airport and in the UK more broadly, especially in light of the expected introduction of the wide body Boeing 747 in the near future. “The inherent limitations of existing foam tenders in service, both in rate of application and length of throw of foam, when related to the increase in aircraft size and fuel capacity, would seem to indicate that aircraft development has outstripped the evolution of firefighting appliances,” they wrote, adding that even the 707 seemed to be too much of a challenge for the primitive vehicles, which had been purchased in 1957, one year before the type’s entry into service. If these vehicles could not even reach the wing of a 707 while parked near its tail, how could they handle a 747, which was going to be twice as big with four times the fuel capacity? Clearly, something needed to be done.
As a result of the accident, several safety changes were made by all the parties involved. BOAC combined the engine failure and engine fire drills into a single “engine fire or severe failure” drill, which called for the fire shutoff handle to be pulled in the event of a major failure regardless of whether there was confirmation of a fire — now standard practice throughout the industry. The revised procedures also called for the flight engineer to read off the written checklist from the beginning after finishing the phase I memory items rather than picking up with phase II, ensuring that they received a reminder to check the position of the fire handle. Separately, The British Airport Authority purchased new, state-of-the-art firefighting vehicles which would be capable of delivering foam to any part of any aircraft, including not only the 707 but the 747 as well. The agency also upgraded Heathrow’s hydrant system and improved training for airport firefighters, introducing more frequent and realistic drills.
The accident proved to be a foundational example of what not to do in future studies related to airport layout, firefighting practices, and checklist design. However, the case of flight 712 is understandably famous not for these safety improvements, but for the heroism and sacrifice of flight attendant Barbara Jane Harrison. It was her story that quickly emerged as the centerpiece of the flurry of news reports surrounding the accident, as more and more witness testimony began to suggest that she could have escaped, but chose instead to return in search of the last four passengers, only to die while trying to save them. The story touched a nerve, and still does today. Jane Harrison was so young, just 22 years old, barely old enough to hold the job, with her whole life ahead of her — and yet, she risked everything to save the lives of those who could not save themselves, from the lost little girl to the woman who could not walk, placing their lives so selflessly above her own. That she did not succeed in saving them did nothing to diminish the magnitude of her sacrifice, because what matters is that she tried, and when the end came for them all, at least they knew that they were not alone.
The story of Jane Harrison immediately spurred calls for her and the other crewmembers to receive some form of official recognition for heroism. There was some controversy over whether Captain Taylor ought to receive awards in addition to the cabin crew, but in the end the civil servant responsible for state honors decided to recommend only Jane Harrison and Neville Davis-Gordon for commendation, in light of the findings of the investigation. Because the pilots’ actions contributed to the severity of the accident, they were passed over — even Captain Taylor, who personally did everything right, but had to take the fall simply because he was in command.
One year after the accident, in the summer of 1969, at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously awarded Jane Harrison with the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian medal for heroism. At the same ceremony, Chief Steward Neville Davis-Gordon was also granted the British Empire Medal for Gallantry, which he accepted on behalf of all the members of the cabin crew, noting that their success was nothing if not a team effort. For their part, the pilots were not entirely passed over either: the British Airline Pilots Association independently awarded them its Gold Medal for airmanship, recognizing their impressive feat in getting the plane on the ground in one piece. All the pilots retained their jobs regardless of any mistakes they may have made, and the observer, John Hutchinson, later went on to fly Concorde on behalf of British Airways.
Jane Harrison has the distinction of being one of very few women ever to receive the George Cross, and the only one whose act of heroism took place during peacetime. Susan Ottaway, author of the book “Fire over Heathrow,” has pointed out that many other recipients of the award lived their lives in constant danger working as battlefield medics or informing behind enemy lines, but Jane Harrison woke up that morning at her own home in London, believing that nothing more awaited her than an ordinary day at work. She could not have known that her flight would last not for 36 hours, but for just 212 seconds, and that at its end she would find herself at the cusp of the R2 door, facing a choice that would define both her life and her legacy. If she had jumped from the plane at that moment, as smoke and fire filled the cabin behind her, no one would ever have blamed her for not going back in. But instead, she concluded that her job was not done until every passenger was off the plane, and so she chose to turn away from the door, in what one British MP later termed a “lonely and courageous action.” Indeed, perhaps in that moment she felt that the task facing her was a lonely one, knowing that four people were still on board and that only she could save them. But as horrible as that moment may have been, she was not and is not alone — her deeds have not been forgotten, and her name has since been spoken by untold multitudes, etched forever into that intangible epitaph alongside all those who have given their lives in the line of duty.
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