Down into Darkness: The crash of Britannia Airways flight 226A

The wreckage of Britannia Airways flight 226A lies in a field near Girona-Costa Brava Airport, Spain. (Chris Ware)

On the 14th of September 1999, a Britannia Airways Boeing 757 carrying a tour group to Girona, Spain touched down hard and veered off the runway on landing. The plane careened down an embankment and broke into three pieces, killing one passenger and injuring 43 others. Witnesses, including the captain, reported a very unusual reason for the crash landing: just seconds before touchdown, as they were flying in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, all the runway lights unexpectedly failed. But how did this lead to the crash? The investigation would eventually uncover an improbable sequence of events that centered around 11 crucial seconds during which electrical power to the airport lighting system was interrupted — 11 seconds that came at the most critical moment of an already difficult approach, and which led to a high-G touchdown and an escalating series of mechanical failures on board the airplane that made the crash exponentially worse.

G-BYAG, the Boeing 757 involved in the accident. (Jordi Grife)

Britannia Airways was a major British charter airline founded in 1962, which mainly conducted flights to holiday destinations on behalf of tour operator Thomson Travel (which, along with Britannia Airways, is now part of the TUI Group). The core of Britannia Airways’ fleet during its later years consisted of a large number of narrow body Boeing 757s and their wide-body cousin, the 767. It was one of these 757s, registration G-BYAG, that was scheduled to take 236 tourists to Girona, a city of about 100,000 people in the northeastern corner of Catalonia, about 85 kilometers from Barcelona. The passengers were all participants in a holiday tour organized by Thomson Travel which would spend several days in the area around Girona.

Also on board the plane were nine crewmembers, including two pilots. In command was 57-year-old Captain Brendan Nolan, an experienced pilot with 16,700 flight hours; his unnamed first officer was 33 years old and was relatively green, with just under 1,500 hours, almost all of them on the 757. Over the past several days, the pair had been flying night shifts that took them to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and to Bodrum, Turkey, in both cases returning home well after 3:00 in the morning. After a 14-hour rest period back in the UK, they geared up for the flight to Girona, which was scheduled to depart Cardiff, Wales at 7:40 p.m. UTC.

With 245 people on board, flight 226A departed Cardiff on time, bound for Girona. Weather at the destination that night was poor, with thunderstorms and rain reported across the region, including at two of their three designated alternate airports. By the time they neared Girona at 11:14 p.m. local time (9:14 p.m. UTC), weather reports indicated that a storm was located southwest of the airfield and the runway was wet. The crew elected to land on runway 02, which would allow them to land into the wind and uphill (the runway had a slight gradient from one end to the other). This would require a higher workload on approach, however, as runway 02 did not have an instrument landing system.

Girona Costa Brava Airport as it appeared around the time of the accident, facing north past the threshold of runway 02. The city of Girona can be seen in the background. (Rubau)

During the approach to runway 02, events started to get out of hand. The captain extended the speed brakes to increase their rate of descent, but he took his hand off the lever to attend to other tasks and forgot to retract them for 14 minutes, which created considerable difficulties maintaining the proper approach speed and caused the plane to consume about 400 more kilograms of fuel than expected. As the plane descended, a flight attendant reported that lightning struck the left wing; shortly afterward, turbulence knocked Captain Nolan’s approach chart out of its clip on the control column and he was unable to retrieve it. The headwind soon shifted direction and became a tailwind, increasing the plane’s ground speed significantly. At 11:36, Captain Nolan managed to spot the lights of the runway from an altitude of 1,000 feet, but it was clear that they had come in too high, and he elected to abandon the approach and climb back to 5,000 feet.

Prior to approaching runway 02, the pilots had agreed that if they were unable to land, they would divert to Barcelona. But the weather at Barcelona was equally bad, and they had just enough fuel to make one more approach to Girona, so they decided to give it another shot, this time via an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to runway 20, the same runway from the opposite direction. As they were already in position to begin the approach, they commenced their descent right away, without even the most cursory approach briefing. As they descended through the storm back toward the runway, the pilots received an “INSUFFICIENT FUEL” caution message, informing them that if they were to divert to Barcelona, they would land with less than the company minimum of 2,800 kilograms of fuel remaining. The pressure was now on.

At 11:46, the lights of the runway began to gleam wetly in the distance. “Lights in sight,” Captain Nolan reported. 26 seconds later, he added, “Contact,” and switched on the landing lights. Torrential rain pounded the windscreen; lightning flashed in the distance. At 250 feet above the ground, Nolan switched off the autopilot and autothrottle in order to bring the plane down manually. But at that moment the autothrottle was making a temporary corrective thrust increase to compensate for shifting winds, and engine power was 25% above normal for this stage of the approach. Nolan didn’t notice this excess power until several seconds later, when he looked down at his instruments and realized that they were being pushed above the proper glide path to the runway. He immediately moved to push the nose down to get them back on course.

At that very moment, the storm knocked out electrical power to Girona-Costa Brava Airport and several surrounding neighborhoods. Every light at the airport went out in an instant, including the approach lighting, runway edge lights, and Precision Approach Path Indicator lights. Right as Captain Nolan pushed the nose down, he looked out and saw that where the runway had been just seconds earlier, only darkness remained. With the plane just seconds from touchdown, he faced a major crisis. All visual references to the runway had disappeared. Overcome by shock and surprise, all he managed to do was hold the airplane in its current attitude as it dropped toward the ground. For a couple of seconds the landing lights illuminated the white stripes of the touchdown zone, and the ground proximity warning called out, “SINK RATE! SINK RATE!” Nolan needed to pull up and reduce power to slow down for a graceful landing, but he never managed to do so.

Flight data including glide slope deviation (light blue) from glide slope intercept to touchdown. (CIAIAC)

At 11:47 and 17 seconds, flight 226A slammed into Costa Brava Airport’s runway 20 at a speed of 141 knots (261 km/h). The nose gear hit the pavement first, followed by the main gear a split second later, pulling 3 G’s in the process, well beyond what the landing gear was certified to withstand. The plane immediately bounced back into the air, its nose pitching up from the violent rebound. The sudden deceleration threw Captain Nolan forward in his seat, causing him to accidentally push the control column forward again; the nose dropped and the plane slammed to the ground a second time, 1.9 seconds after the first touchdown. This second touchdown was far worse than the first. The plane plowed nose-first directly into the ground with colossal force, tearing the nose gear assembly out of its mountings. The landing gear bogie is attached to a box structure called the “doghouse;” the doghouse itself rotated aftwards and plowed into the main electronics compartment, tearing through the control panels that govern the aircraft’s electrical generators. The aircraft instantly lost all electrical power, and dozens of systems simultaneously went dead, including the interior and exterior lights, the flight data recorder, the instruments, the anti-skid systems, the autobrakes, the spoilers, and the thrust reversers.

How the nose gear mechanism failed. (CIAIAC)

In the control tower, the controller saw the airport lights go out and caught sight of the airplane as it touched down. Within seconds, backup generators restored power to the runway lights, but as they did so, the lights of the airplane suddenly vanished, and all she could see was a massive shower of sparks as the airplane slid away into the night, disappearing behind heaving curtains of rain. She attempted to activate the crash alarm, but to her horror, the button did absolutely nothing — the system was inoperative.

Meanwhile on the airplane, the situation was about to get much, much worse. As the “doghouse” rotated upward and backward, it tore through the cables that transfer pilot and autothrottle commands to the engines. Each engine has an “A” cable, which causes thrust to increase when in tension, and a “B” cable which causes thrust to decrease when in tension. When the doghouse crashed upward through the aircraft floor, it severed both engines’ “B” cables but left the “A” cables intact. The tension snapped around to the “A” cables, and both engines began to rapidly accelerate. There was nothing the pilots could do to stop this from happening, and Captain Nolan was unable to react in any case: the impact had thrown him face-first into the left windscreen pillar, knocking him unconscious.

Rolling along on the partially collapsed nose gear with its engines at high power and almost all braking systems inoperative, the crippled 757 careened down the runway for more than a kilometer before slewing off to the right into the grass. Traveling at high speed — almost certainly greater than the speed at which it initially touched down — the plane rumbled over the grass runway margin, slid down an access road, slammed into an earthen mound, briefly became airborne, crushed the airport perimeter fence, and crashed down in a field, where it broke into three pieces and ground to a halt. Inside the plane, several rows of seats had been torn out of the floor, cabin furnishings had been ripped from the walls and ceiling, and bags were scattered everywhere, but all the passengers were miraculously alive, many of them completely unhurt. The flight attendants began an orderly evacuation, and within a few minutes everyone was out of the plane. Captain Nolan soon regained consciousness and was able to leave under his own power. But as passengers struggled through the muddy field, it began to dawn on them that something was wrong: there was no sign of the emergency services.

Diagram of the last several hundred meters covered by the airplane as it departed the runway. (CIAIAC)

When the emergency crash alarm failed to sound, the controller decided to go for plan B: she called the fire station on the telephone and told them that she had lost contact with the plane as it was landing. She couldn’t see the plane and didn’t know exactly where it was or what had happened to it, but she did tell the firefighters that it was probably at the southern end of the airport (which it in fact was). The airport’s small contingent of emergency vehicles hurried out to the southern end of the runway, only to find no sign of the plane, which was hidden behind a row of trees. Amid the darkness and rain, they made their way up to northern end, only to discover that the airplane wasn’t there either.

Meanwhile, a passenger managed to make his way up the embankment and across the runway to the terminal, where he encountered the airport’s chief Safety Officer and told him where the plane was located. The Safety Officer got in a vehicle and drove to the crash site, only to find that the firefighters had found it on their own moments earlier, and were in the process of trying to get across the perimeter fence to access the airplane. Eighteen minutes had passed since the crash. Another six minutes or so were required to get vehicles into the sodden field, which was so muddy that numerous passengers had lost their footwear, while some became so thoroughly stuck that they were unable to move and had to be rescued. Due to the chaotic scene and the difficulty accessing the plane, it was more than 70 minutes before all the passengers were brought to the terminal and the injured transferred to area hospitals.

The wreckage of the plane as it came to rest. (Bristol Live)

All told, only two of 245 people on board were seriously hurt, while 42 received minor injuries. However, the miracle of their survival was tempered five days after the accident, when an 84-year-old man who was thought to have survived the crash with minor injuries died unexpectedly. An autopsy found that he had suffered internal injuries that went undetected, and which were possibly exacerbated by a pre-existing condition. That made Britannia Airways flight 226A, as of this writing, the last fatal crash of a British passenger jet.

The investigation into the accident was handled by Spain’s Civil Aviation Accidents and Incidents Investigation Commission (CIAIAC). Central to the inquiry were two questions: why did the plane touch down so hard, and once it did so, why did it slide so far off the runway?

Inside the cabin of the 757 after the crash. (CIAIAC)

Although the flight data recorder cut out at the moment of the second touchdown, investigators were able to answer the second question by examining the wreckage itself. The displacement of the doghouse backwards through the electronics bay and upward into the cabin floor destroyed the plane’s electrical system and everything which relied on it, including most of the systems which help the plane slow down. It also severed the cables which transmit commands for reduced thrust to the engines, a failure mode that was far outside of what the manufacturer had considered; as a result, instead of shutting down, the engines began accelerating to high power. Had this not occurred, the plane probably would have slid to a stop on the runway relatively quickly, and the number of injuries would have been much lower. Investigators also found two previous incidents on the 757 in which the nose gear had collapsed, leading to a total electrical failure, and in one of those cases there had also been an uncommanded increase in engine thrust. As a result of these findings, the CIAIAC recommended that Boeing improve the design to ensure that the collapse of the nose gear doesn’t cause a catastrophic loss of aircraft systems.

Front view of the wreckage, looking back toward the runway. (Chris Ware)

In interviews with investigators, Captain Brendan Nolan explained that the reason for the hard touchdown was that the runway lights suddenly turned off right as he was about to land, causing him to become disoriented. Although there was no recording device which would provide the exact time when the power went out, and the local electric utility did not reply to repeated inquiries from the CIAIAC, numerous witness statements independently verified that the electricity in the area of the airport did go out at least three or four times that night, including right around the time of the accident. Investigators concluded that most probably the runway lights turned off for eleven seconds, beginning seven seconds before the aircraft touched down and coming back on four seconds after.

View of the right side of the airplane. (Jordi Grife)

At the moment the lights went out, Captain Nolan was looking at his glide slope indicator to see whether his control inputs were putting them back on course or not (following a brief deviation from the glide slope caused by disconnecting the autothrottle while the engines were at a momentarily higher power setting). The first officer would also have been monitoring the instruments. Therefore, neither pilot actually saw the runway lights turn off; instead, they were there one moment and then gone when they next looked back. This proved extremely disorienting for Captain Nolan, who lost all sense of where the runway was located. Unable to anticipate the imminent touchdown, and still trying to work out what was going on, he did not manage to reduce the rate of descent that he was using to return to the glide path, nor did he succeed in flaring the airplane to ensure that it touched down on the main landing gear as designed. From there, the nose-first touchdown caused the plane to bounce, and the captain’s most likely involuntary control inputs made the bounce considerably worse by forcing the plane down into the runway again less than two seconds later. It was this second impact which collapsed the nose gear and caused all the additional failures which followed.

Another view of the plane as it came to rest. (Carlos de la Fuente)

According to company procedures and generally accepted aviation wisdom, the proper thing to do when visual contact with the runway is lost on final approach is to immediately execute a go-around. For reasons made obvious by this accident, putting the plane down with no visual reference to the runway surface is unsafe. However, in the case of Britannia Airways flight 226A, this was easier said than done. At the time that the runway lights went out, Captain Nolan had less than five seconds in which to initiate a go-around without striking the ground, and it took him considerably longer than this just to figure out what was going on, let alone what he should do about it.

Passengers generally exited down the escape slides, except for two doors on the left side which were so close to the ground that the slides didn’t inflate. (Wales Online)

Part of the reason that he failed to take any decisive action during the seven seconds between the failure of the runway lights and the touchdown might have been fatigue. This was his third day in a row flying night shifts, and while his rest times and duty periods were all within legal limits, it’s impossible to switch to a night-flying schedule and maintain it for several days without accruing fatigue, especially at the age of 57. One of the most common symptoms of fatigue is increased reaction times. Although the official report barely mentioned fatigue, most pilots would probably agree that it was a factor in this accident.

Aerial overview of the crash scene. (WindTours)

Another possible reason for his lack of an appropriate reaction to the loss of visual reference was the high workload in the minutes leading up to the failure. The pilots had to contend with bad weather, poor visibility, a severely rushed approach which they had not properly briefed, and pressure to get on the ground and avoid a diversion. Although both pilots denied that they felt any pressure due to their fuel situation, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t conscious of the fact that, if they diverted to Barcelona, they would have to explain why they landed with less fuel than the company minimum. Although Captain Nolan probably wasn’t consciously weighing this possibility during the seven critical seconds before the crash, he had surely weighed it earlier. It also could have affected his decision to take the rushed second approach in the first place, since at that moment the conditions were above the minimums for landing, but there was no guarantee they would stay that way. Furthermore, conditions at Barcelona and Reus (two of their three designated alternates) were at least as bad as at Girona, and if he chose to consume precious fuel diverting, he might have put them in an even worse situation if he was unable to land at these airports either. (Their third alternate, Toulouse, was free of storms but was much further away.) When it came down to the wire, this would have made executing a go-around psychologically difficult — especially given that neither pilot was ever asked to initiate a go-around at that stage of the flight during training.

This is the route taken by the plane as it careened off the runway. (CIAIAC)

All of this having been said, for many survivors of the crash, the biggest sore point was the slow emergency response. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Spanish authorities issued a shockingly tone-deaf statement praising the emergency crews for their “quick response,” then when pressed on the delay, said that this was not an issue as most of the passengers didn’t need help anyway. In an apparent attempt to one-up their Spanish counterpart, a Britannia Airways spokesperson told the press, “At no time were the passengers in any danger, although they may have found it an unusual experience.” Needless to say, the danger was very real. Had the plane gone off the runway just a few meters either side of where it did, it would have collided head-on with an embankment or the earthen mound, potentially causing a catastrophic breakup of the fuselage leading to multiple fatalities. In light of this fact, the CIAIAC recommended that Girona Airport improve the runway environment to make it more level, which they appear to have done: on satellite photos of the airfield, the embankment, earthen mound, and row of trees that separated the crash site from the runway have all been removed. As for the slow response to the crash, the CIAIAC determined that this occurred due to a confluence of factors, including the low visibility, the failure of the aircraft lights during the rollout, the absence of a fire, the location of the aircraft down a slope and behind some trees, the failure of the crash alarm system, and the small airport being generally unprepared for an accident of this magnitude.

View of the airplane from the edge of the runway. (CIAIAC)

In its final report — which the CIAIAC was apparently in no hurry to release, as it didn’t come out until 2004 — investigators issued a number of recommendations to improve aviation safety. In addition to those recommendations already mentioned, these included that Boeing improve the design of the pilots’ seat belts to ensure that their heads can’t strike the window pillars; that the European Aviation Safety Agency mandate training on go-arounds after the decision to land has already been made; that Spanish airport rescue crews receive better training in how to find crashed airplanes; and several other measures to correct deficiencies which were uncovered during the inquiry but were not directly related to the accident.

The wreckage trail, from where the plane crossed the perimeter fence. The nose gear can be seen in the foreground. (Chris Ware)

The crash of Britannia Airways flight 226A is an excellent illustration of how mounting operational pressures, workload, and fatigue can leave a crew vulnerable to unexpected events. Reacting to the sudden failure of the airport lights is one thing on a clear night with plenty of fuel and a well-rested pilot, and quite another in a storm with low fuel and a crew on their third consecutive night shift. It would be fair to say that Captain Nolan had so much on his plate that when the lights went out, his mind became overloaded and simply stopped working for several seconds. Does that make this crash a freak accident? Not exactly. Numerous operational factors put the crew in a position where one unexpected failure could lead to catastrophe. Usually that failure doesn’t happen, but this time it did, with destructive consequences. There is little that airlines and pilots can do to completely prevent this sort of incident, but a number of measures can reduce the risk: take more fuel, be cautious around bad weather, make sure there isn’t undue pressure on pilots to avoid diversions. So could an accident like this happen again? Well… never say never.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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