Pilot who saved Leeds United team 24 years ago said that day 'never leaves my mind'

The quick-thinking pilot who saved the entire Leeds United team 24 years ago said the terrifying incident “never leaves my mind”.

The Premiership side were flying home at around 11.30pm on March 30 in 1998, after losing 3-0 to West Ham at Upton Park, but the right-hand engine exploded seconds after take off and the plane caught fire.

Captain John Hackett, who is now 85, defied protocol and managed to bring the Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft down at the end of a runway at Stansted Airport.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“I think we just got to about 200 ft. We were just about to take the undercarriage up, when we heard the most unholy bang and the whole night sky lit up,” he said.

The right-hand engine exploded seconds after take off and the plane caught fire, on March 30 in 1998

“The aeroplane yawed violently (to the right) and my first thought was it was a bomb.

“You train all the time for engine failure on takeoff and you just deal with it normally. This wasn't a normal case.”

Captain Hackett immediately took over from first officer Gary Lucas, who was flying the plane, and brought the aircraft into land.

It ran onto an uneven grassy area and the nose ploughed into the ground, after the front landing gear snapped off, but 40 passengers and four crew members, one of whom was pregnant, escaped without suffering any serious injuries.

The front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post on March 30 in 1998

Read More

Read More
Minister rejects Yorkshire MP's call for three-month extension to free Covid tes...

If the pilot had followed the usual procedure, he would have continued with the take off, carried out emergency drills and shut down the engine before landing the plane.

But he was later told that when an identical engine on a Canadian aircraft exploded and the pilot followed that procedure, everyone on board died after the fire destroyed the wing and the plane spiralled out of control.

“Had I done that, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Mr Hackett.

“When the engine exploded, the rotating disk of the turbine exited vertically and took all the fuel lines and all the fire protection system with it.

“Even though we were shutting off all the fuel valves in the cockpit, the leaking fuel was feeding the fire and we had about three tonnes of fuel on board at the time.

“The obvious thing was to get back on the ground as soon as possible, which we did.

“It was an instantaneous decision and it was the right decision.”

Captain Hackett was interviewed under caution after the incident, but the Air Accidents Investigation Branch eventually concluded that his decision to land the aircraft immediately was "sensible in the circumstances".

Investigators also found there was a “catastrophic” engine failure and a major fire, after a high-pressure rotating turbine disc came loose and shot out of the engine.

After the crash landing, the pilot and his crew were praised by the passengers, including the 18 Leeds players on board, former stars Norman Hunter and Eddie Gray and assistant manager David O'Leary.

They were also invited to Elland Road, so the club could thank them personally and Captain Hackett was presented with a watch and a plaque which was engraved with the names of everyone on board.

He returned to work several days after the crash landing and retired three years later, bringing an end to a 32-year career.

He said: “It's something that never leaves my mind and I still have occasional nightmares. But it’s not something I dwell on too much.”