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Special Report: British Overseas Airline Company Flight 712

BOAC Flight 712 burns on the runway at Heathrow Airport after landing.
For the passengers who had a view out of the port windows aboard BOAC Flight 712 to Zurich, enroute to Sydney, Australia, it must have seemed that their worst nightmares had come true. One and a half minutes after takeoff on the clear and sunny afternoon of April 9, 1968, the no.2 engine of Boeing 707 G-ARWE broke away from its mounting pylon and fell, tumbling in flames, over Hounslow, on the fringe of London's Heathrow Airport. For Captain Charles Taylor and his four companions on the flight deck, the drama had begun 80 seconds earlier, and confusion had added to the difficulties.

Captain Taylor lifted Flight 712 off of runway 28L at 15.27hrs. Besides his First Officer and engineering officer, the flight deck also housed an acting first officer and a supervisory captain running a routine check on Captain Taylor's performance. Twenty seconds into the flight with the undercarriage up and locked and noise abatement power time approaching, there was a loud bang and the crew felt a shock tremor. The throttle lever for the no.2 engine kicked back towards the closed position, and the engine's instruments showed it was slowing down.

An amateur photographer photographer 712 as its no.2 engine (encircled) dropped away.
Engine Failure

The Captain ordered "Engine Failure Drill" and the flight engineer immediately began to carry out the first actions of the drill, which included fully retarding the throttle lever. Because the under carriage was fully retracted, the warning horn sounded as he did so, and the check captain and flight engineer both reached for and pulled simutaneously the horn cancel switch which was located on the pedestal. At the same time instinctively, but in error, the first officer punched the fire bell cancel button in front of him, and the flight engineer reached for the engine fire shut-off handle but did not pull it.

The lack of a flight voice recorder made it impossible to establish a second-by-second timing of events, but at about this time the check captain glanced out of the port side window and saw the number 2 engine was ablaze. He suggested that Captain Taylor should turn back to the airport and land. The number 2 engine fire shut-off handle light came on, and though the alarm did not sound, Captain Taylor ordered 'Engine Fire Drill' as the first officer began to put out a 'Mayday' call.

As the flight engineer switched from 'Engine Failure Drill' to 'Engine Fire Drill,' carrying out the check list from memory as required by regulations, Captain Taylor was turning the aircraft back towards Heathrow and the crosswind Runway 05, simultaneously descending from his achieved height of 3,000 feet. Just as the undercarriage was lowered and locked and full flap selected, the number 2 engine fell away. Fortunately, the undercarriage was unaffected, but the flaps ran out to only 47 degrees, three degrees short of their maximum. There was no glide slope guidance for Runway 05, but despite the damaged flaps, the need to decelerate from the achieved speed of 225 kts, and indication that number 1 engine might fail, Captain Taylor managed an extremely smooth touchdown about 400 yards beyond the threshold.

He immediately brought wheel brakes and reverse thrust on engines 1 and 4 engines into play to halt the aircraft as soon as possible, for by now the fire in the port wing root was so hot that the window mountings were melting. The reverse thrust deflected the flames further in towards the fuselage, and as the captain ordered engine shut-down and fire drill, there was a sudden explosion.

The port wing fell off at the root, and the blast buried flaming debris over to the starboard side of the aircraft. The time elapsed between rotation and touchdown had been just three minutes, 32 seconds. While the flight crew scrambled from the flight deck window to assist passengers from the chutes on the starboard side, passengers were already making their way along the starboard wing and down from the rear and forward galley doors. Two escape chutes were damaged by the fire and burst, but of the 127 people aboard, 123 had escaped before the arrival of the fire and rescue services, which had been held up in crossing busy runways. Thirty eight people received treatment for injuries, and five, including a stewardess, were overcome by heat and fumes and died aboard G-ARWE. An investigation later discovered that the fire in the engine had been caused by the failure of a low pressure compressor wheel, due to fatigue.

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