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Special Reports: British European Airways Flight 548

The wreckage of British European Airways Flight 548 is seen in a field near the M-1 Motorway in this photo. (File Photo)
Captain Stanley Key of British European Airways (BEA) was a very sick man, though neither he nor his company doctors suspected it. The stocky 51-year-old was described as 'the picture of robust good health' and his latest six-monthly medical, which included an electrocardiogram (ECG) heart scan, bore this out. Only an autopsy was to reveal Key's coronary arteries were half-choked with fatty and fibrous tissue and that Key was in no condition for his hobby of gardening, let alone sitting in the left-hand seat of a jet airliner with a complement of 109 passengers. Any sudden excitement could lead to rupture and bleeding of the arterial wall, leading, inevitably, to heart failure.

A towering rage, the trigger to that fatal excitement, almost certainly came on the afternoon of Sunday 18 June 1972 in the BEA crew room at Queen's Building, Heathrow Airport. Captain Key, a former wartime RAF pilot with a total of 15,000 flying hours, 4,000 of them logged as a Trident skipper, was one of a pool of aircrew on standby duties. He was also in the center of a complicated industrial dispute between BEA and the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) which had split the pilot community; one group of First Officers was already on strike, and others wished to follow them out. Captain Key was one of a large group of senior officers vehemently against strike action. When a First Officer challenged his views that afternoon, Key flew into an immediate and towering rage, leading to what an eyewitness was to describe as "the most violent argument I have ever heard." Key's fury was undoubtedly fed by the fact that, during the dispute, hostile graffiti referring to him had appeared scrawled on the backs of seats on several Trident flight decks. At about 1600 rs British Summer Time (1500 Greenwich Mean Time, under which European air traffic operated), an hour after his outburst, the tannoy requested Key to take one such disfigured aircraft, Trident Mk I Papa India, on BEA Flight 548 to Brussels.

With him would go 22-year-old Jeremy Keighley, who though qualified as co-pilot was still under training; and Second Officer Simon Ticehurst, at 24 fully qualified, with 1,400 hours, 750 of them on Tridents, under his belt, but still a very junior officer. As far as pathologists were later able to judge, Captain Key would by now have been feeling slight discomfort due to blood seepage in his arterial wall. As the three men clambered aboard Papa India, rain began to lash the windscreen in front of them. An approaching cold front 30 miles to the west had resulted in fresh south-westerly winds and a cloud base of l,000ft, which would mean an uncomfortable ride for the 118 people on board. As well as the full 109 passengers and six crew - three pilots and three cabin staff - the three-pilot crew of a BEA Vanguard freighter, due to pick up their aircraft in Brussels that evening, had been accommodated at the last moment. Their leader, Captain John Collins - himself a former Trident man - was settled in the jump seat on the flight deck. Captain Key sat in the left-hand seat, Jeremy Keighley in the right-hand seat, and Simon Ticehurst in the third pilot's seat between and behind them. 

Keighley would share certain clearly defined aircraft-handling roles with the Captain, though at Key's discretion. Keighley's training reports included the comments that he was slow to react to an emergency in the flight simulator, that he lacked initiative, and that though he would eventually make a 'good, reliable pilot,' he was 'slower than average and will need patient, rather than pressure, handling.' From his rear position, Second Officer Ticehurst would monitor the flight instruments and the other pilots' performances, carefully chaperoning the flight's progress, while from the jump seat Captain Collins, though playing no part in the flight, would doubtless be keeping a professional eye on all three. The Trident Mk I, with its three engines clustered in the rear of the fuselage under the high tailplane, had come into service with BEA in 1963, and was a robust and reliable aircraft. However, its T-tail, which gave it the ability to cruise at high speeds, also gave it the potential to deep stall at lower speeds, particularly on takeoff and landing. To counteract this tendency, a 'droop' system was employed on the wing leading edge, while conventional flaps extended at the trailing edge. Basically the droops increased the camber of the wing by extending forwards by hydraulic operation and quite literally 'drooping' the leading edge.

Both droops and flaps were controlled by two independent levers situated at the right-hand side of the centre console, and were normally operated by the co-pilot. The lift produced by the droops was considerably greater than that of the flaps, and the danger of confusing the two control levers was readily apparent - modern aircraft have one control for both. The Trident was also protected from stall by a conventional 'stick shaker' system which vibrated the control column as the stall condition approached, and a 'stick pusher' which caused a pneumatic ram to force the control column forward, dropping the nose and reducing the critical angle of attack of the wing, thereby preventing the imminent stall.

Warning lights and a loud 'disengage auto-pilot' warning alarm were also installed. Unfortunately, instances had occurred of stick-push and warning lights being triggered where no emergency existed; in these cases the Captain was able to over-ride the system. Captain Key, the ex-service pilot, ran his aircraft by the book. His only departure from the absolute norm was a liking for the autopilot, which he tended to engage early, though this was a perfectly acceptable practice within safety limits. At 1603 GMT, Papa India was cleared to the holding point. As Key guided her along with the nosewheel tiller, Ticehurst read the checklist over the intercom, Key and Keighley responding; droops were selected out, flaps set at 20 degrees. As they neared the holding point, London control cleared them to Dover One standard instrument departure (SID) which meant a left turn at a marker beacon a mile or so from the far end of the runway over the town of Staines, and a track toward the radio beacon at Epsom which they would cross at around 3,000 ft en route to their first height restriction of 5,000 ft. At 1608 Key held the aircraft on the toe brakes while Keighley advanced the throttles to minimum power setting for take-off - slightly less than full power to reduce engine wear - and fine-tuned each thrust lever. Key released the brakes and Papa India began to roll. At 1609:14, with the aircraft up and climbing and the safe climb-out speed of 152 kts achieved, Key called 'undercarriage up.' As the landing gear thumped gently into the wheel-bays, Papa India began to buffet wildly in the gusting wind, and Key fed in left rudder to counteract drift, crabbing her along the extended runway centre line.

At 355 ft and 19 seconds into the air, Key engaged autopilot with the speed setting at 170kts, 7kts lower than requirement. It was not a vital margin, but not an entirely safe one under the circumstances and served to show the normally precise Captain's growing loss of concentration. At 1609:44, in intermittent cloud and passing 690 ft, the left turn to Epsom was initiated by turning the autopilot heading knob. At 1610, Keighley called 'ninety seconds', indicating the approach of noise abatement time, when power was reduced to a pre-determined setting. Three seconds later he retracted the flaps and, as they were running up, eased back the throttles to noise abatement level. Everything was on schedule, with the aircraft banking towards Epsom, except that a more alert pilot would have noticed that the speed had dropped to 157kts, 20kts below requirement. While Keighley was adjusting the throttles, London control was instructing Key to climb to a further height restriction at flight level six zero. Key's reply was abrupt and unorthodox: omitting his call sign, he snapped: 'Up to six zero.' By now his discomfiture was becoming acute. The time was 1610:18. If all had gone well, Papa India would have passed Epsom in a minute or so, with a height of 3,000ft and a speed of 225kts - the minimum height and speed for droop retraction. But all was not well. At 1610:24, at a height of l,770ft and a speed of 162kts, the droops were selected in. The reason why, and the identity of the pilot responsible, will never be known, as no cockpit voice recorder was carried. Key may have noticed the slow speed, attributed it to flaps and reached for the droop lever instead of the already retracted flaps lever. He may have ordered Keighley to set the new height restriction into the height acquire box, an instrument operated by a knob near the droop lever, using some such terse instruction as 'put it in,' and so confusing the 'slow' Keighley into moving the droop lever. Or he may have fumbled for the height acquire box himself and in his pain and confusion altered the droop setting.

In any case, within one second of the droop lever movement, Papa India entered the stall regime, with the stick push ram kicking into operation, panel warning lights flashing, and the strident ringing of the auto-pilot disconnect alarm. The resulting shock may well have induced a full heart attack in Captain Key. Three times the stick push operated in order to put the nose down and avert a stall. Three times, the confused captain 'corrected' to pull the nose up. At 1610:43 the aircraft locked into a deep stall with the nose at an angle of 31 degrees. It passed low over the A30 highway, and at 1611, exactly 36 seconds after the inadvertent droop retraction and about two and a half minutes after take-off, impacted on its belly in a miraculously clear spot near the heavily populated Crooked Billet outskirts of Staines. Captain Key may have been dead before Papa India hit the ground. In any case, all 118 people aboard died. Hearing of the wreck on the radio, ghoulish sightseers clogged the area in motor cars, adding an extra dimension of horror to what was already one of the most tragic combinations of circumstances in the annals of flying.

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