The British Airways (BA) first officer who was the pilot flying the Boeing 777-200 when its engines failed to respond to power demands on final approach to London Heathrow airport says he immediately judged there was a serious risk of disaster. Senior first officer John Coward is quoted in an interview with the UK Sunday Mirror newspaper as saying: “Suddenly there was nothing from any of the engines and the aeroplane had started to glide.”
Coward’s words confirm the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch’s (AAIB) assessment of the flight data recorder (FDR) download which showed that, at 600ft on final approach to London Heathrow’s runway 27L, and 3km (2nm) to touchdown the engines failed first to respond to demands for a power increase from the autothrottle and then from the crew manually advancing the power levers.
The first officer was forced to land the aircraft – inbound from Beijing, China soon after midday on 17 January – just inside Heathrow’s perimeter fence on grass some 400m short of the runway threshold. On touchdown the left main gear was thrust up through the wing root and the right was sheared off by resistance from the soft ground. The Sunday Mirror paraphrased Coward as saying he "used the wing flaps to supply enough lift to clear the perimeter fence", and quotes him saying: “I didn’t think we’d clear the fence at first. As we landed I braced myself for an enormous thud, but there was a series of thuds as it bounced along the grass. Eventually it shuddered to a halt. While I was trying to stop the aircraft I struggled to keep it in a straight line.” Coward described the silence that followed as “eerie”, explaining: “There was no sound at all. No sound from either of the engines, no sound from behind.” Then, he said, he began to hear the “commotion” as the cabin crew began evacuating the passengers. All on board survived. Among the 136 passengers, 13 cabin crew and three pilots, there were only three injuries.
In the early morning of 20 January the investigators were preparing to have the aircraft’s wreckage removed from its position just on the pre-threshold tarmac of runway 27L into one of BA’s hangars for further investigation by the AAIB, Boeing, and the US National Transportation Safety Board which has sent staff to assist with the probe. The cockpit voice recorder, FDR and the aircraft’s engineering diagnostic computer the digital quick access recorder are all at the AAIB’s headquarters at Farnborough where initial downloads of data have taken place.