On 24 June, 1982, the crew of BA9, operated by 747-236B G-BDXH, were preparing the aircraft for a routine trip to close out the last segment of a London to Perth transit. The flight would end up being anything but routine. In fact, British Airways Flight 9 from Kuala Lumpur (KUL/WMKK) to Perth (PER/YPPH) would turn out to be one of the most unusual flights involving the Boeing 747.
Captain Eric Moody, First Officer Roger Greaves, and Flight Engineer Barry Townley-Freeman faced the most dire situation in any of their careers.
What neither they nor any of the other 244 passengers and crew knew was that the volcano Galunggunon the island of Java was erupting, spewing volcanic ash into the air.
After departure from KUL, Captain Moody scanned the weather radar and found nothing worrisome ahead. He needed to use the lavatory and because the one closest to the cockpit was in use, he descended to the First Class cabin where he chatted with Purser Sarah Delana-Lea. Within moments, he was called to return to the flight deck. On his way upstairs Moody noticed what appeared to be smoke coming from the floor-level air vents. He could smell an acrid, burning odor, similar to an electrical fire.
Passengers reported seeing an “eerie light surrounding the plane” and noted that the engines appeared to be “glowing.” Shortly thereafter, passengers noticed 30-40-foot flames shooting from the rear of each engine.
Upon entering the cockpit, Captain Moody encountered what he described as, “the most intense St. Elmo’s Fire I’ve ever seen.” Then the Flight Engineer called out, “Engine failure number 4!” Temporarily setting aside his concern about ‘smoke’ in the cabin, Moody called for the Engine Fire Drill which was immediately executed.
Losing an engine in-flight was an emergency the crew had trained for in the simulator and for which they were prepared. They methodically worked the problem, remaining calm, focused, and determined.
But soon they weren’t just dealing with one downed engine. The Flight Engineer called out, “Engine failure number 2!,” quickly followed by, “Three’s gone!” And then, “they’ve all gone!” Within 90 seconds, they’d lost all four engines.
As Captain Moody later described it, G-BDXH had just become the biggest, and heaviest glider in history. A 747-200 has a glide ratio of approximately 15:1 [kilometers] meaning it can glide forward 15k for each 1k it descends. The crew quickly calculated they had less than 25 minutes and 90 miles before they were going to return to Earth somewhere and somehow. (In fact, BA9 held the record for the longest glide by a non-purpose-built aircraft until the Gimli Glider incident, which was then surpassed by the Air Transat Flight 236 incident). And the crew had no idea why.
The First Officer issue a Mayday call: “Mayday, Mayday. Jakarta control. Speedbird nine. We have lost all four engines. Repeat, all four engines. Now descending through flight level 3-5-0.”
Over the next 12 minutes the plane descended from 37,000 feet to 12,000 feet and the crew worked quickly, calmly, and efficiently as they tried to restart the engines. They were challenged by a lack of properly operating speed indicators, so they had no idea how fast they were going and thus, no idea when to attempt a restart. Captain Moody began a series of maneuvers to climb and dive the aircraft to adjust the speed to help with the engine restart process.
These aggressive changes in attitude frightened the passengers, and in an attempt to reassure them, Captain Moody delivered what has been widely hailed as the most understated cabin PA announcement in history:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”– Captain Eric Moody
Then, somewhere close to 12,000 feet in altitude, Engine 4 restarted. The flight crew was relieved to have an engine back and even more so as Engine 3 restarted, followed by Engines 1 and 2. Engine 2 experienced repeated surges, so the crew decided – albeit reluctantly – to shut it down as they made their way toward their emergency landing at Jakarta. They soon discovered that their troubles were not yet over.
The ILS at Jakarta was non-functional, so the crew had to land the plane manually. And, much to their dismay, they found that they could no-longer see out of the windshield which appeared to have been sandblasted. With a little luck, fantastic training, and outstanding airmanship, Moody, Greaves, and Townley-Freeman managed to safely return G-BDXH to the ground in Jakarta.
What had caused this highly unusual incident? The crew initially blamed themselves for having missed something in their preparation or operation of the flight. It was not until several days later when engineers at Rolls Royce stripped down and examined three of the engines that they found the cause of the engine failures. The engines had become clogged with volcanic ash and the airflow was interrupted. The flames passengers reported seeing shooting from the rear of all four engines were backfires caused by an improper ratio of air to fuel due to the clogging by the volcanic ash.
The investigation determined that a key factor in the survival of the aircraft and all aboard was that the molten ash and rock had had time to cool and was blown out of the engines when Captain Moody dived the airplane, allowing the engines to restart.
After the flight, Captain Moody created the Galunggun Gliding Club for all 247 people aboard BA9. The club still meets annually.
To read more about British Airways flight 9, download Captain Moody’s interview with Jack Diamond “Down to a Sunless Sea” from our Media Library
To read more about the impact of volcanic ash on jet engines, download, “Engine Damage to a NASA DC-8-72 Airplane From a High-Altitude Encounter With a Diffuse Volcanic Ash Cloud” from our Media Library