Sunday January 8 1989, a day many people will never forget.
Christmas and New Year had come and gone, and it had been just over two weeks since Pan Am Flight 103 had exploded over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 259 souls on-board and a further 11 people on the ground.
There was an uneasy feeling at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) as 118 passengers, including one infant, boarded British Midland Flight 092, operated by a brand new Boeing 737-400, for the short ‘shuttle’ service to Belfast International Airport (BFS).
Little did they know that in a few hours they would be involved in a disaster that would change the aviation industry forever.
Onboard the flight that evening were eight crew members made up of Captain Kevin Hunt (43), a veteran pilot who had been with the airline since 1966 and First Officer David McClelland (39). In the cabin were six crew members, Ali Osman Flight Service Manager (FSM), Debbie Griffiths (Flight Supervisor), Jamie Carter, Barbara Jones, Sharon Freestone and Jonathan Collins.
At 1952 hrs the aircraft (G-OBME) took off from Heathrow and the crew began the inflight service. A short time later, while climbing through 28,300 feet, there was a loud bang and severe vibrations could be felt along with a strong smell of burning.
In the cabin smoke could be seen pouring in through the ventilation system and passengers seated on the left could see flames and sparks coming from the No. 1 (left) engine. The cabin crew later described the noise as a low, repetitive thudding, ‘like a car back-firing’ and one described how the vibrations shook the walls of the forward galley. Passengers were immediately instructed to return to their seats and fasten their seat-belts.
Captain Hunt and FO McClelland began to deal with the emergency situation, quickly realising they had a problem with one of the aircrafts two CFM International CFM56 engines. Hunt asked McClelland which one was malfunctioning to which the First Officer replied, “It’s the le-…no, the right one”. Hunt then proceeded to shut down the No.2 (right) engine and arrange a diversion to East Midlands Airport (EMA).
Once they believed the problem had been dealt with, the commander called the Flight Service Manager (FSM) to the flight deck. He instructed them to clear up the cabin and pack everything away as they would be diverting to EMA. About a minute later the FSM returned and said “Sorry to trouble you….The passengers are very, very panicky”. The captain then made a PA to say they had trouble with the right engine and would be diverting to East Midlands.
Immediately many of those onboard became alarmed when the pilot spoke of problems with the ‘right’ engine, after clearly witnessing problems with the left. Sadly no one brought this to the attention of the crew and by this point the smell of smoke had dissipated so many believed that the situation was under control.
The aircraft was now just a few miles from touchdown, the 737’s landing gear had been lowered and the passenger cabin was prepared for a precautionary landing.
Suddenly there was an abrupt decrease in power from the No. 1 power plant and the aircraft began to rapidly lose height. Captain Hunt requested for the No. 2 engine to be restarted and raised the nose of the 737 in a vain attempt to glide to the runway.
But it was too late. Seconds later at 2024 hrs the aircraft struck the ground to the east of the M1 motorway before hurtling across the road and impacting its western embankment. The jet was just 900 metres from the safety of the threshold of runway 27.
Survivors recalled heavy vibrations immediately prior to the crash and how these were severe enough to open overhead lockers and cause them to spill contents. Those seated at the rear of the aircraft described two distinct impacts, while those at the front only felt the final, devastating collision.
The scene that greeted the emergency services was one of complete carnage. The 737 had broken in to three pieces. The nose section had travelled up the embankment, while the tail section fractured before buckling over the centre fuselage and wing section.
One of the cabin crew on board Flight 092 that night was Ali Osman. Ali has been kind enough to relay his incredible story of the ill-fated flight for Confessions of a Trolley Dolly.
“I joined British Midland Airways as a member of cabin crew in 1986. The airline was then a small UK domestic carrier, operating predominantly the Glasgow/Edinburgh/Belfast shuttle flights. When I joined, the fleet was made up mainly of the Douglas DC-9 aircraft, a great plane to operate on and we had a great team of friendly and professional crew. In 1989 British Midland had started to take delivery of some brand new, state-of-the-art Boeing 737-400 aircraft.
I had reported for work with a BFS based crew a day earlier on the 7th and undertaken a check flight before enjoying a night stop in Belfast. The following day I positioned back to London with a Heathrow based crew. I spent much of the flight in the rear galley catching up with the Flight Service Manager, as I too had been promoted in November 1988 to FSM.
On our arrival at LHR the operating crew disembarked and I waited for the new crew to join. In total there was six of us [cabin crew] onboard that night, myself, a flight supervisor and four other cabin crew. The flight crew also changed and the two new pilots (Captain Hunt and First Officer McClelland) boarded. After some brief introductions we had our own briefing and started to get the cabin ready for our passengers. The first two flights were routine and nothing out of the ordinary, with the usual bunch of good-humoured passengers.
I was now looking forward to completing the final two sectors and getting back home to enjoy days off. As passengers boarded I was working in the front galley topping up supplies and preparing for the inflight service. The flight supervisor greeted our passengers while the other crew were busy in the cabin. We had a few empty seats, and with everyone onboard we were soon ready for our departure. The aircraft made its way to the runway and we took off. Once released we began to get ready for the meal service and I was in the forward galley preparing the tea and coffee.
All of a sudden there was a huge bang and I walked across the galley and looked down the aisle, the rest of the crew were making their way to the front. The aircraft started to shudder and there was smoke in the cabin. The vibration was severe and a thousand things were going through my mind. Lockerbie had happened a few weeks previously and I kept thinking a bomb had gone off in the hold.
I felt incredibly calm. It was almost as if the whole situation was surreal. The flight crew rang the chimes and I walked into the flight deck where every light and indication was illuminated. I stood there for a few seconds before the captain turned around and told me to get the trolleys away and the cabin ready for landing as we were diverting to East Midlands Airport.
When I came out into the galley the vibration had stopped and the haze had gone. I relayed to the crew (who were in the galley) what the captain had told me and that we should clear in quickly. The flight supervisor asked me if she should do the emergency PA and I said the captain had said it was a diversion. We all went into the cabin and began to clear in. Passengers were very calm and very compliant. Once the cabin was cleared I asked all the crew to maintain a high presence, which I felt the passengers would find reassuring. The general sense in the cabin was now pretty calm.
With a short while to go before our landing I told the two crew at the front to sit down and strap themselves in. I walked to the rear galley and spoke to the #2 crew member and told her that I would do the final check through the cabin and for the three of them to sit down and strap themselves in. I walked up the cabin ensuring passengers were strapped in and ready for our landing.
I sat in seat 1D because as the FSM I took any available seat in the cabin and if the flight was full I would sit in the flight deck. I sat down and strapped myself in next to two friends who were travelling together. The gear came down, and all of a sudden there was a huge bang again like the sound of a car back firing. A few moments later the Captain made a PA “Ladies and gentlemen we are now having problems with engine number two, do not prepare for an emergency landing prepare for crash landing. Brace, brace, brace”. I looked down the aisle and then looked forward at the girls who were already in the brace position. At this point I got myself into the brace position………
A short while later I opened my eyes. I’d been knocked out by the armrest. I was almost horizontal in my seat and I was looking up about six feet. I could see the two crew members, one was slumped forward in her jump seat and the other one was walking between the two doors. I could feel pain in my arm, leg and neck. My face was also hurting. At this point I decided I was having a nightmare and closed my eyes for a few seconds in the hope I would fall asleep. I knew then because of the pain that we had crashed. I was totally disoriented.
I realised the cabin floor had detached itself from the main frame of the aircraft and we had fallen into the hold. I could see trees out of the window and was trying to work out where we were. I called out to one of the crew members and asked if she was ok. She told me she was injured and couldn’t move. I told her I thought I’d broken my leg and I couldn’t move. The other stewardess was trying desperately to get the doors open but without any success as we had crashed into trees. I shouted out to passengers to remain calm and the rescue services would be with us shortly.
The aircraft had hit the embankment of the M1 motorway at junction 24. It had broken into three parts and the tail section, where the other three crew were, had flipped up back onto the fuselage. I slipped in and out of consciousness and was trapped for about 90 minutes.
The carnage around me was just phenomenal, no hat racks just the bare skin of the aircraft. The cabin was very quiet, I could only hear a couple of voices. The seriousness of the incident had not fully hit me. I then heard a voice shout “We’ve got one of the crew” and saw a fireman stood over me. All I could say was “No get the passengers out first”. I was lifted (and ignored!) onto a stretcher and passed down a chain of fireman until I was put on the motorway in order to be ferried to hospital. Once I was put into an ambulance I asked about the crew down the back and was told there had been a number of fatalities.
I arrived at A&E The Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham and there I was finally reunited with the rest of my colleagues. I was taken down to theatre and they decided I needed to be operated on straight away given the severity of the break to my leg. I had broken my left leg, right arm, right elbow, my neck and injured my knee. I had also lost most of the fillings in my teeth and cracked three. I also had a corker of a black eye and was nicknamed the panda by the nursing staff. The Queens Medical Centre became home for the next three months.
I knew my life would never be the same again and I was right. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about the crash, and those that didn’t get out alive. Despite my injuries I was one of the very lucky ones. 47 passengers died as a result of the crash and so many people’s lives were impacted.
The only good thing that came out of the accident was so much was learnt about the brace position and CRM.
Please never allow yourself to become complacent at work. Always have your wits about you.
Thank you for reading my story. The aim isn’t about scaring people as flying is still VERY safe and continues to get safer”.
39 passengers died at the scene of the accident, eight more died in hospital later. Most of those who perished were seated where the fuselage and floor sections failed, with all but one of the 39 deaths sustaining fatal head injuries.
Miraculously 79 passengers and crew survived and this, in part, can be put down to the quick actions of the crew on board the flight. As the situation unfolded they had very little time to prepare the cabin for landing and, as they believed they would simply be diverting to EMA, no emergency briefing was given to passengers. However the whole cabin and galley was well secured and all loose carry-on luggage stowed into the overhead lockers. Despite being trapped and badly injured themselves Ali and the other crew shouted instructions, calmed and re-assured passengers that help was on its way.
Following the crash a number of safety recommendations were implemented. Better crash test dummies were developed to improve safety testing. Seats were strengthened and latches on overhead lockers were improved. Aircraft instrument panels were made easier to read and all modified engines must now be tested in the air, when previously this was only required for new engines.
Much was also learnt about the survivability of plane crashes and the effectiveness of the brace position. Professor Angus Wallace of the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham was baffled at the fact that although many passengers were killed and horrifically injured, others sustained only minor cuts and bruises.
Speaking at the time Prof. Wallace said, “We discovered a lot of those on board had not adopted a brace position for the impact. There were many fractures where people’s legs flailed under the seat in front, and of course arm and head injuries as they shot forward. I’m pleased to say the CAA and British airlines have now adopted our recommended brace position with you head forward by your knees, your hands over your head, and your feet firmly planted behind your knees so they can’t shoot forward”.
Other recommendations, such as rear-facing seats were put forward but immediately rejected by various airlines, on the basis that passengers simply do not want to travel backwards.
One of the biggest changes after Kegworth was the introduction of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) training in order to improve relations between the flight and cabin crew. During a PA made to the passengers the captain stated that he had shut down the ‘right’ engine, yet many passengers had witnessed fire coming from the left.
In the subsequent report, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said “It must be stated that had some initiative been taken by one or more of the cabin crew who had seen the distress of the left engine, this accident could have been prevented. It must be emphasised, nonetheless, that present patterns of airline training do not provide specifically for the exercise of coordination between cabin and flight crew in such circumstances”.
It is fair to say however that the crew were obviously pre-occupied with completing their own duties as they prepared the cabin and galleys for landing. And of course, as both crew and passengers put vast levels of trust in our flight deck colleagues, it may well have been assumed that the captains reference to the right engine was a mere slip of the tongue. Or that the problems that had been seen with the left engine, were in some way consequential to another problem with the right engine.
CRM training is now mandatory across all UK airlines. Pilots are taught to take a more team-orientated approach, while cabin crew no longer work under the assumption ‘the pilot knows best’ and are trained to feel confident enough to challenge any perceived mistakes.
The final outcome of the CAA report stated that “The cause of the accident was that the operating crew shut down the No. 2 engine after a fan blade had fractured in the No 1 engine”. Metal fatigue was blamed for the fan blade fracture and lack of training on a new aircraft type and the poor placement of engine instruments in the flight deck also contributed to the crash.
Hunt and McClelland, both seriously injured, were sacked from British Midland in 1991, though both men said they were ‘scapegoated’ for the airline’s failure to train them on the new plane correctly. McClelland later successfully sued for wrongful dismissal.
Two out of the six cabin crew never flew again. However four later returned to the skies, a testament to the fact that accidents such as this are rare and our skies continue to be made safer.
Their brave actions that day, the lessons learned from their testimonies after the crash and the subsequent changes that were brought to our industry is why the crew of British Midland Flight 092 join our Angels of the Sky.
For more incredible Angels Of The Sky stories click here.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air