On Monday, April 8, 1968 Barbara Jane Harrison put on her uniform and made her way to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) to join ten other cabin crew members operating Flight 712, bound for Sydney Australia Via Zurich and Singapore. She had worked with the company on their Boeing 707 fleet for almost two years.
Little did she know that in a few hours, she would go down as one of the bravest women in aviation history.
This is her story.
All seemed normal, as the 116 passengers boarded the Boeing 707-465 (G-ARWE) and were treated to BOAC’s exquisite onboard service.
In the flight deck that day was Captain Cliff Taylor, assisted by Senior First Officer Francis Kirkland, Acting First Officer J. Hutchinson and Flight Engineer Thomas Hicks. They were joined that day by Check Captain Geoffrey Moss.
Joining Harrison in the cabin was Chief Steward Neville Davies-Gordon, Stewardesses (as the crew were then referred to) Rosalind Unwin, Jennifer Suares and Stewards Bryan Taylor and Andrew McCarthy.
A short while after 15:00GMT, the aircraft pushed back from the gate and made its way to the runway, finally taking off at 15:27.
But a few seconds after the 707s wheels had left the tarmac, disaster struck. A loud and unexpected bang shook the aircraft. “Mayday” was issued two minutes after take-off and the pilots requested an immediate return to LHR. At first, it appeared that a fire had taken hold in engine #2, but it was much worse.
As the aircraft attempted to return to the airport, the engulfed engine broke away and fell to the ground, the terrifying moment captured by onlookers on the ground.
One can only imagine the sheer terror onboard as windows at the rear port side began to melt from the intense heat. The crew went through their safety drills in the cabin and briefed the passengers.
Stewardess Suares later spoke of how she continued to repeat the emergency landing drill, even though she was unsure they would make it back to Heathrow.
Rosalind Unwin, whose only injury was a slight burn on the arm, later said, “We had a very, very good cabin crew that day. We boarded all the passengers and with everything secured for take off, we got clearance and took off at about 4.20pm. Just about a minute into the flight, there was a loud bang. Andy and I looked at one another and together said, ‘What’s that?’ Andy rose and opened the flight deck door and we both heard the distress alert ‘Mayday, Mayday’ from the cockpit.”
Back On The Ground
Just 3 minutes and 32 seconds after take-off, the 707 was back on the ground, flames licking the fuselage, the column of smoke rising from the plane could be seen 10 miles away.
The landing was perfect, and the aircraft quickly came to a halt. In the flight deck, the pilots began to shut the 707 down, while in the cabin, the crews training kicked in as they commenced the evacuation.
At the front, passengers began to escape down the emergency slides. However the port slide caught fire before it could be used.
Unwin continued, “My chute did not work properly. I pulled the ripcord and it came off. I was later to learn it had probably moved in its casing during many take offs and landings. We just pushed and shoved passengers out, generally without cabin baggage – about a body every second. Some passengers remained calm. I recall seeing a poor lady at the bottom of the chute. She just stood there and wet herself. One of the aircraft tyres was rolling towards another lady passenger. A fireman helped her away and another managed to divert the tyre’s course of rolling. Whilst all this was going on, the aircraft exploded three to four times.”
At the rear where Harrison had been seated, conditions were horrendous. As they deployed the starboard slide, it twisted, proving useless. By now, the fire had taken hold and the slide on the port side was quickly destroyed.
Assisting Harrison, Steward Taylor realised the twisted slide was now their only means of escape and climbed down to straighten it out. This left Barbara alone at the top to assist with passengers.
Six people managed to escape successfully before it too punctured and deflated. Harrison continued to evacuate people this way, pushing those who were too scared to jump and approximately 22 people managed to escape this way.
It is hard to imagine what must have been going through Barbara’s mind at this time, yet she continued to carry out her duties.
Flames now ravaged the 707, leaving little time for escape.
Testimonies from those who had already evacuated told how Harrison was last seen alive, about to jump herself from the rear door. But something grabbed her attention and she turned back, disappearing into the burning fuselage. It is believed that she went to try to save an eight-year-old girl and elderly passenger who was having difficulty escaping on their own.
Exhausted and choking on the thick smoke that engulfed the cabin, she never made it off the aircraft. Her body was found near the elderly passenger, young girl and other passengers seated in one of the last rows.
A True Heroine
We’re always told that if the water is too deep, the fire is too hot and the smoke is too thick, we should save our own lives. A month away from her 23rd birthday, Harrison sacrificed hers to save countless others that fateful afternoon. Five people were killed in the disaster and 38 were injured, but many more would have died without the crew’s bravery.
Passengers praised her courage and calmness during the evacuation. Her colleague Anne Woods later spoke of her bravery, “She had plenty of opportunity to escape but did not feel right about leaving a wheelchair passenger and three others on board. The Captain kept screaming at her to jump”.
After the fateful flight, Harrison was awarded the George Cross. She became the first woman ever to receive the award in peacetime and one of only four women ever to receive it. In 1987 British Airways purchased the medal and it is now on display at their archive museum at Heathrow.
In 1971, she was awarded the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award. Established in 1968, it recognises the bravery of aircraft crew and ground personnel, whose actions exceeded their job requirements.
That sunny April afternoon, Barbara Jane Harrison did just that.
Read more incredible stories of bravery in aviation – Angels Of The Sky.
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