Fighting back: The hero whose life was wrecked by vicious rumours

It's taken a while, but in recent weeks Peter Burkill has begun to feel the same sense of freedom he experienced flying passenger aircraft for British Airways.

During his long career, the former pilot took to the skies more times than he cares to remember, but in January 2008, the engines of his Boeing 777 failed and he had just 35 seconds to bring the plane to safety.

Crash-landing at Heathrow, the plane skidded along the runaway, but Peter's efforts at the flight deck saved the lives of all 152 passengers, and as images of the wreckage were beamed across the world, he was lauded as a hero.

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Following a press conference at which he modestly said he was just doing his job, Peter returned to the family home, in Worcester, and the wife and children he had thought he might never see again.

However, in the months after the crash, when Peter's heroics were no longer headline news, rumours about the accident began to spread. It was implied that when the plane went into freefall, he had frozen and had failed to transmit the May Day call or carry out the correct evacuation procedure.

The air crash investigation – which found ice in the fuel system had caused the engines to fail – cleared him of any blame, but it was too late. The whispering campaign refused to go away and Peter later took voluntary redundancy, leaving BA and the job he loved.

The events of the last two-and-a-half years have forced a radical rethink, not only for Peter, but also for his wife, Maria. Without a regular income, the house they bought is on the market and the family now have no option but to downsize.

Yet while the changes were unforeseen and, at the time, unwanted, Peter, who will address the Yorkshire International Business Convention in June, is now beginning to piece his life back together.

"Maria had bought a lovely property on the river in Worcester," he says. "It's a dream house, and while we mortgaged ourselves up to the hilt, we both thought we were going to live out our retirement there. Plus, I was on a good wage, so it didn't really matter.

"Now we can't afford it. The 'For Sale' sign is up and we don't really know where we will go next, but we also feel a real sense of freedom. We don't have debts, our lives are a bit of a blank canvas and there is a lot to be positive about.

"I now get to spend more time with the children, which is incredibly precious, and the world is full of opportunities. Maria is Catholic and while I'm not religious in that way, we both feel that we are being pushed towards a different direction in life.

"There's a reason why bad things happen to some people and we're just waiting to see what it is."

Peter admits he has not always been able to put such a positive spin on events. Constantly forced to defend his actions, his confidence ebbed away, and when other airlines ignored his applications for work without so much as a courtesy letter of rejection, self-doubt did begin to creep in.

"When I first began hearing the rumours, I was incredibly angry," he says. "It's not a pleasant feeling when you're in charge of an aircraft to think that some of your cabin crew might not have full trust in you. You start thinking the whole world doubts what you did.

"When I first left BA, I don't think I was in the right frame of mind to think about what I wanted to do next.

"As a child, I never thought I was particularly clever. My three brothers and sisters were the academic ones and I was more interested in being outside and playing sport.

"But dad was a pilot, and when I eventually did follow in his footsteps, it was an incredibly proud moment.

"Eventually, I thought it would be a shame to waste 20 years of flying experience and I applied for dozens of jobs with different commercial airlines.

"I didn't expect to find employment overnight, but I was never offered even one interview, which, given my CV, just seemed incredible.

"Airlines don't like to talk about crashes, even ones where there are no fatalities. They are worried about the company image in the press and damaging customer confidence. I think my name was too well known and no-one wanted to be associated with it."

Peter and Maria did look at emigrating to Canada, but, again, they hit a brick wall. For the first time since the Second World War, the country has removed the profession of pilot from its list of skilled workers eligible for a visa.

"I have begun to wonder whether someone is trying to tell me something," laughs Peter, who has recently written a book with Maria, looking back over the last two years.

"When you go through something like this, there is a need to make sense of it, to find reasons why it happened. I'm not sure we'll ever have that kind of closure, but the book has been a help just to clarify in our own minds how the last two years have panned out."

The couple say they never intended to publish a book (called Thirty Seconds to Impact), but after a friend read their various jottings, they were persuaded to turn their hastily scribbled words into something more formal.

"Unbeknown to me after the crash, Maria had started writing things down about how she felt and the way she saw I was being treated," says Peter.

"Eventually, she showed me what she had written and when I sat down to read them, I was incredibly moved. When the situation is changing so quickly you forget what happens one day to the next.

"I really wanted my account of what happened to be there for my children. Our three boys, Troy, Logan and Coby, are aged between two and five, and when they grow up, I wanted them to be able to read about why our lives changed so much when they were little."

Peter hopes that by then, he and Maria will be settled and that he will be able to look back at his days with BA and remember only the good times. What is certain is that fateful day in 2008 changed his life forever.

"People who have had a near-death experience sometimes say it completely changes the way they look at life," he says. "I now understand what they mean. I get a lot more emotional than I ever did.

"I don't break down in tears very often, but when I read the newspaper and see the terrible things which happen in the world, I do find myself getting more emotionally involved

"It's almost like there's a connection. I see other people's point of view a lot more clearly than I probably ever did before. It's made me a much more sensitive person and that has to be a good thing."

n Peter Burkill will be one of the guests at the Yorkshire International Business Convention on June 11. The event will be held at the Yorkshire Event Centre, in Harrogate, and for more information, visit or call 01924 422193.