BRITISH Airways pilots were praised today after safely landing a smoke-trailing plane on which both engines appeared damaged.
Passengers on the Airbus A319 described how “big flames” were seen coming from the right-hand engine as the Oslo-bound plane returned to Heathrow airport.
A picture taken from inside the plane also showed an engine cover on the left-hand engine had come loose, indicating that that engine, too, had been damaged - possibly by a birdstrike, which could also have affected the other engine.
Pictures of the plane taken on the ground after the five crew and 75 passengers had been evacuated down emergency chutes also showed the left-hand engine exposed. London Ambulance staff said it had treated three people for minor injuries.
Both runways at Heathrow were shut for a time after the incident and although they re-opened later, BA cancelled all short-haul flights until 4pm today - affecting the travel plans of thousands of people flying off for the bank holiday weekend and school half-term holidays.
After eyewitnesses had described seeing smoke billowing from the plane as it returned to Heathrow at around 8.30am today, one of the passengers, David Gallagher, explained what it had been like on board.
He told BBC News: “About eight or nine minutes into the flight there was a loud popping sound, not an explosion but definitely not usual sounds.
“There was some concern from passengers - people gasping and louder exclamations.
“The captain came on very calmly, said he was aware of the situation and that everything was running normally and he was going to run some tests to see what the right course would be.”
He went on: “Then another five minutes after that there was a loud sound, and this time the right engine was clearly on fire. I mean, big flames, very visible from the rest of the cabin and lots of black smoke.
“There was no disruption to the flight at all, even when it was clear we were down to one engine.
“A few passengers were upset understandably, especially those on the right side of the plane. The cabin crew and the ground crew were outstanding and completely calm, reassuring and professional during the whole incident.”
Both the northern and southern runways at Heathrow were closed after the incident, although flights were able to resume shortly afterwards from the southern runway.
Clive Cook, an eyewitnesses on the ground, told Sky News: “The actual engine itself was on fire.
“This plane was coming over and suddenly the tone of the engine changed dramatically, and I could almost say it sounded as if it was like a blowout, or an explosion.
“I’m absolutely certain that as it came through the clouds, and I looked up ... the right engine was on fire, it wasn’t smoking, it was actually on fire.”
A BA statement said: “Customers and crew on board a British Airways aircraft that returned to Heathrow this morning are safe and well after being evacuated from the aircraft.
“Flight BA762 departed Heathrow at 8.16am and returned to Heathrow at 8.43am due to an engine technical fault. The Airbus A319 aircraft was carrying 75 customers and five crew.
“The aircraft landed safely and cabin crew evacuated customers using emergency slides. Airline colleagues are now caring for customers in the airport terminal.
“There is likely to be disruption to other flights today into and out of Heathrow. Customers are advised to check ba.com for information about their flights before departing for the airport.”
The airline has begun a full investigation into the incident and is working with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) to establish the cause.
Heathrow chief operating officer Normand Boivin said there would be a number of flight cancellations during the day.
He went on: “I would like to pay tribute to BA’s pilots and crew and Heathrow’s fire and airside teams. In particular, I’d like to thank this morning’s airport duty manager Mark Freeman and his team for their quick and professional response to today’s incident.”
Captain Mark Searle, chairman of airline pilots’ association Balpa, said: “This was a professional job done by professional people. As pilots we spend our whole career training to manage incidents such as this in order to avoid an incident becoming a disaster.
“Balpa representatives will be assisting the pilots involved in this incident and providing whatever support they need. And, as always, we will all learn whatever lessons we can.”
BA had been expecting its busiest day of the bank holiday period with 128,000 passengers due to travel.
The airline had planned to carry more than 463,000 customers over the extended weekend, with 116,000 due to fly on bank holiday Monday.