Photo: British Airways
In 1982, a British Airways 747 flew into a cloud of volcanic ash near Indonesia.One by one, all four of its engines failed.
After falling more than 25,000 feet and preparing to ditch in the Indian Ocean, the plane’s crew eventually got the engines restarted. So the story had a happy ending.
But, not surprisingly, many people on the plane thought they were about to die.
I am old enough to remember this incident, but I had forgotten something important about it: What the plane’s captain said to the passengers the moment after the engines failed. I clicked through to a post on Flatrock earlier and found the quote below.
Captain Eric Moody was later praised for a cabin announcement that was described as “a masterpiece of understatement.”
Moody’s announcement was actually more than that.
It was a masterpiece, period. If an exceptional speechwriter had spent a week composing the message, he or she couldn’t have done better.
In 37 short, direct, and simple words, Captain Moody conveyed the following:
- What was happening
- The urgency of the situation
- The crew’s intense focus on the problem (without false assurances that they could fix it)
- Concern for the well-being of the passengers (without being patronizing)
- A dry sense of perspective that probably did more to relax the passengers than thousands of words of explanation ever could have.
Here’s what Moody said:”Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
British Airways Flight 9, sometimes referred to by its callsign Speedbird 9 or Jakarta incident, was a scheduled British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Auckland, with stops in Bombay, Madras, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, and Melbourne.
On 24 June 1982, the route was flown by the City of Edinburgh, a 747-236B. The aircraft flew into a cloud of volcanic ash thrown up by the eruption of Mount Galunggung (approximately 180 kilometres (110 mi) south-east of Jakarta, Indonesia), resulting in the failure of all four engines. The reason for the failure was not immediately apparent to the crew or ground control. The aircraft was diverted to Jakarta in the hope that enough engines could be restarted to allow it to land there. The aircraft was able to glide far enough to exit the ash cloud, and all engines were restarted (although one failed again soon after), allowing the aircraft to land safely at the Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Jakarta.
The crew members of the incident segment had boarded the aircraft in Kuala Lumpur, while many of the passengers had been aboard since the flight began in London.
Shortly after 13:40 UTC (20:40 Jakarta time) above the Indian Ocean, south of Java, the flight crew (consisting of Senior First Officer Roger Greaves and Senior Engineer Officer Barry Townley-Freeman while Captain Eric Moody was in the lavatory) first noted an effect on the windscreen similar to St Elmo’s fire. The phenomenon persisted after Moody returned from the lavatory. Despite the weather radar showing clear skies, the crew switched on engine anti-ice and the passenger seat belt signs as a precaution.
As the flight progressed, smoke began to accumulate in the passenger cabin of the aircraft; it was first assumed to be cigarette smoke. However, it soon began to grow thicker and had an ominous odour of sulphur. Passengers who had a view out the aircraft windows noted that the engines were unusually bright, with light shining forward through the fan blades and producing a stroboscopic effect.
At approximately 13:42 UTC (20:42 Jakarta time), engine number four began surging and soon flamed out. The flight crew immediately performed the engine shutdown drill, quickly cutting off fuel supply and arming the fire extinguishers. Less than a minute later, at 13:43 UTC (20:43 Jakarta time), engine two surged and flamed out. Within seconds, and almost simultaneously, engines one and three flamed out, prompting the flight engineer to exclaim, “I don’t believe it—all four engines have failed!”
Without engine thrust, a 747-200 has a glide ratio of approximately 15:1, meaning it can glide forward 15 kilometres for every kilometre it drops. The flight crew quickly determined that the aircraft was capable of gliding for 23 minutes and covering 91 nautical miles (169 km) from its flight level of 37,000 feet (11,000 m). At 13:44 UTC (20:44 Jakarta time), Greaves declared an emergency to the local air traffic control authority, stating that all four engines had failed. However, Jakarta Area Control misunderstood the message, interpreting the call as meaning that only engine number four had shut down. It was only after a nearby Garuda Indonesia flight relayed the message to Air Traffic Control that it was correctly understood. Despite the crew “squawking” the emergency transponder setting of 7700, the aeroplane could not be located by Air Traffic Control on their radar screens.
Many passengers, fearing for their lives, wrote notes to relatives. One such passenger was Charles Capewell, who scrawled “Ma. In trouble. Plane going down. Will do best for boys. We love you. Sorry. Pa XXX” on the cover of his ticket wallet.
Owing to the high Indonesian mountains on the south coast of the island of Java, an altitude of at least 11,500 feet (3,500 m) was required to cross the coast safely. The crew decided that if the aircraft was unable to maintain altitude by the time they reached 12,000 feet (3,700 m) they would turn back out to sea and attempt to ditch into the Indian Ocean. The crew began engine restart drills, despite being well above the recommended maximum engine in-flight start envelope altitude of 28,000 feet (8,500 m). The restart attempts failed.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.
As pressure within the cabin fell, oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling — an automatic emergency measure to make up for the lack of air. On the flight deck, however, Greaves’s mask was broken; the delivery tube had detached from the rest of the mask. Moody swiftly decided to descend at 1,800 m per minute to an altitude where there was enough pressure in the outside atmosphere to breathe almost normally.
At 13,500 feet (4,100 m), the crew was approaching the altitude at which they would have to turn over the ocean and attempt a risky ditching. Although there were guidelines for the water landing procedure, no one had ever tried it in a Boeing 747, nor has anyone since. As they performed the engine restart procedure, engine number four finally started, and at 13:56 UTC (20:56 Jakarta time), Moody used its power to reduce the rate of descent. Shortly thereafter, engine three restarted, allowing him to climb slowly. Shortly after that, engines one and two successfully restarted as well. The crew subsequently requested and expedited an increase in altitude in order to clear the high mountains of Indonesia.
As the aircraft approached its target altitude, the St Elmo’s fire effect on the windscreen returned. Moody throttled back; however, engine number two surged again and was shut down. The crew immediately descended and held 12,000 feet (3,700 m).
As Flight 9 approached Jakarta, the crew found it difficult to see anything through the windscreen, and made the approach almost entirely on instruments, despite reports of good visibility. The crew decided to fly the ILS (Instrument Landing System); however, the glide slope (vertical guidance) system was inoperative, so they were forced to fly with only the localizer (lateral guidance) as the first officer monitored the airport’s DME (Distance Measuring Equipment). He then called out how high they should be at each DME step along the final approach to the runway, creating a virtual glide slope for them to follow. It was, in Moody’s words, “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger‘s arse.” Although the runway lights could be made out through a small strip of the windscreen, the landing lights on the aircraft seemed to be inoperable. After landing, the flight crew found it impossible to taxi, due to glare from apron floodlights which made the already sandblasted windscreen opaque.
Damaged engine parts from BA 9 on display at Auckland Museum Post-flight investigation revealed that City of Edinburgh’s problems had been caused by flying through a cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Galunggung. Because the ash cloud was dry, it did not appear on the weather radar, which was designed to detect the moisture in clouds. The cloud sandblasted the windscreen and landing light covers and clogged the engines. As the ash entered the engines, it melted in the combustion chambers and adhered to the inside of the power-plant. As the engine cooled from inactivity, and as the aircraft descended out of the ash cloud, the molten ash solidified and enough broke off for air to again flow smoothly through the engine, allowing a successful restart. The engines had enough electrical power to restart because one generator and the onboard batteries were still operating; electrical power was required for ignition of the engines.
Engines one, two and three were replaced at Jakarta, as well as the windscreen, and the fuel tanks were cleared of the ash that had entered them through the pressurisation ducts, contaminating the fuel and requiring that it be disposed of. After being ferried back to London, engine number four was replaced and major work was undertaken to return the aircraft to service.
Although the airspace around Mount Galunggung was closed temporarily after the incident, it was reopened days later. It was only after a Singapore Airlines 747 was forced to shut down three of its engines while flying through the same area nineteen days later (13 July) that Indonesian authorities closed the airspace permanently and rerouted airways to avoid the area; a watch was set up to monitor clouds of ash. Flight 9 was not the first encounter with this eruption — a Garuda DC-9 had encountered ash on 5 April 1982.
The crew received various awards, including the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air and medals from the British Air Line Pilots Association. Following the incident, the crew and passengers formed the Galunggung Gliding Club as a means to keep in contact. G-BDXH’s engineless flight entered the Guinness Book of Records as the longest glide in a non-purpose-built aircraft.
One of the passengers, Betty Tootell, wrote a book about the incident, All Four Engines Have Failed. She managed to trace some 200 of the 247 passengers on the flight, and went on to marry a fellow survivor, James Ferguson, who had been seated in the row in front of her. She notes: “The 28th December 2006 marks the start of our 14th year of honeymoon, and on the 24th June 2007 many passengers and crew will no doubt gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our mid-air adventure.”
British Airways continued to operate the Flight 9 route from London Heathrow to Sydney; in March 2012 the route was curtailed to Bangkok. City of Edinburgh, later renamed City of Elgin, continued to fly for British Airways after the incident, before being sold to European Aviation Air Charter. The aircraft was taken out of service in February 2004; in 2009, the then 30-year-old aircraft was scrapped. In September 2009 the environmental group 10:10 bought the fuselage of City Of Edinburgh to be made into tags. The tags, bearing the campaign’s logo, were worn as necklaces or bracelets and used to raise awareness of 10:10’s work: the organisation aimed to persuade individuals, organisations and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.
The incident featured in an episode of the Mayday documentary TV series Air Crash Investigation titled “Falling From the Sky”. This episode was repeated a number of times when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano caused a large-scale shutdown of European airspace.
Captain Eric Moody gave an interview to the July 2010 edition of Flaps Podcast, where he recounted his experience.
A nearly identical incident occurred on 15 December 1989 when KLM Flight 867, a Boeing 747-400 from Amsterdam to Anchorage, Alaska, flew into the plume of the erupting Mount Redoubt, causing all four engines to fail due to compressor stall. Once the flight cleared the ash cloud, the crew was able to restart each engine and then make a safe landing at Anchorage.
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