19 February 2010

Silent drama on flight BA487

Filed under: flight, risks — David Wood @ 12:36 pm

Can the senior member of the cabin staff please come to the cockpit immediately.

I hadn’t heard that announcement on an airplane before, and I hope I don’t hear it again.

About 20 minutes after take off from Barcelona, the pilot of the BA487 clearly had something that needed attention in a hurry.

I was seated quite far back in the plane, so I couldn’t see whether any cabin staff actually ran up the aisle.  Indeed, there was nothing to see at all – everything seemed to be progressing smoothly.  I had my head in a book; someone nearby was watching a movie on his laptop; many other people were sleeping.  It seemed as if nothing had happened.

But about five minutes later, an air stewardess leaned over to the person near me watching the movie, and gently instructed:

Please turn off the laptop – the captain hasn’t switched off the fasten-seatbelts sign.

Other passengers were asked to straighten the backs of their seats.  I overheard one air stewardess say to another “I think the pilot will make an announcement”.

For a moment, I wondered to myself if my own laptop could, somehow, be the cause of this as yet unknown issue.  It was in my laptop bag, in the locker above the seats.  I know that, occasionally, the laptop seems to switch itself on (perhaps to run an auto-timed virus scan) and then fails to close down again.  On these occasions, the laptop can become hotter and hotter, with the airconditioning fan going at full speed.  Perhaps – I speculated – it might be running at frantic speed at this very moment, above my head, emitting some kind of dangerous wireless rays, which were influencing cockit equipment.  Should I own up to this remote possibility, open my seatbelt, stand up, look inside my laptop bag, and check?  Probably not.

Then an air stewardess said quietly, in a reassuring voice:

We’re going back.  The pilot’s turning round.  There’s nothing to be worried about.

A few moments later, the pilot confirmed the same information via a cockpit announcement.  There was a strange smell in the cockpit, he said.  As a precaution, we would be returning to Barcelona.

I thought to myself: things can’t be too bad.  Otherwise we’d be diverting as quickly as possible to some other nearby airport, closer than Barcelona.

However, I found myself unable to concentrate on my book.  I read the same few paragraphs time and again, losing track of where I’d reached.  My mind was racing elsewhere.

Then all the cabin lights went out – apart from the low-level emergency lighting.  My mind jumped ahead again – hmm, the captain is accustomising everyone’s eyes to the darkness, in case the plane crashes and we all need to be able to see things clearly in the midst of nighttime chaos.  But the cabin as a whole seemed calm.  The British stiff upper lip was in play.  Or perhaps it was just that we were all tired – we’d had a long, hard week of meetings, meetings, meetings at the Mobile World Congress.

In the near-darkness, I half wondered about switching on my phone to compose a text message to my loved ones.  What would I say? Then the captain announced:

Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing

which had the happy side effect of calming me down.  But I couldn’t help noticing that someone a few rows away appeared to be praying.

The lights of Barcelona were, by now, visible outside the window.  We seemed an awfully long way up in the air.  Could we really descend all that way in just ten minutes?

Psychologically, those ten minutes lasted an age.  Chronologically, they lasted 12 minutes (according to my watch) – until the airplane wheels touched down on the runway.  A few people nervously clapped their hands, but the applause was muted, and failed to catch.

The potentially heart-stopping drama was over.  161 passengers (according to Telegraph.co.uk) had survived without any physical injury.  But another, lesser, drama was starting.  161 travel plans had been disrupted, and it was not at all clear how the plans would be re-made.  Most British Airways ground staff had gone home for the evening.  A few Iberian staff were, a few hours later, still processing a long line of passengers.  The lucky first few in the queue got seats on a mid-morning flight.  Those of us further back in the queue were assigned to increasingly late flights.  Too bad – it will mean I miss my early evening engagement in London.  But at least we’re all in one piece.

At around 1.30am in the morning, a minibus took a group of us to a hotel in Barcelona town centre.  We drove past the main FIRA location of the Mobile World Congress, which we had all been attending earlier in the week.  At last, the silence and stiff upper lip vanished.  Laughter broke out, with lots of black humour.  Momentarily, it seemed that the bus was stopping at the FIRA itself, and we joked that we needed to get out and start arranging more business meetings.

Postscript 1: There was at least one journalist on the flight, and he used mobile technology to file a report which appeared on Sky News while we were still in the airport arrival hall awaiting our luggage delivery: BA Flight Makes Emergency Landing.  (That story contains exaggerations.  For example, there was no announcement that there was going to be an emergency landing.  Don’t believe everything you read on news sites!)

The story was picked up by The Aviation Herald in its report, “Incident: British Airways B752 near Barcelona on Feb 18th 2010, strange odour in cockpit“.  Some of the reader comments there are interesting:

  • There is often a strange odour in the cockpit when I fly.
  • Tried a shower lately? Then use a different shampoo. [This one is a joke, by the way.]
  • Same aircraft had a similar problem on the 12th Feb. I guess they didn’t find the root cause yet.

The last comment is particularly interesting.  I wonder if the cause lies in software – the same as with the Toyota car recalls?

Postscript 2: By chance I found myself standing next to the pilot and co-pilot in the check-in area next day.  After thanking them for getting the flight down safely, I asked about the report of a similar incident the previous week.  They confirmed it had happened.  Indeed, they had been in the cockpit on that occasion too.  On that occasion, the fumes had caused them feelings of illness and lack of concentration – not something you want in the flight cockpit!  On this occasion, they had reacted quicker, putting on oxygen masks as soon as they smelt the fumes.  Better safe than sorry.

Postscript 3: My thanks to Jorgen Behrens for drawing my attention to a 2006 Guardian article by Antony Barnett which seems highly relevant: “Toxic cockpit fumes that bring danger to the skies“.  Here’s the beginning of that article:

Dozens of pilots have flown while dizzy, nauseous and suffering double vision on crowded passenger flights. The cause is contaminated air and it can strike without warning – but the cases have been kept from the public.

Three weeks ago the pilot of a FlyBe flight from Belfast international airport to Gatwick was preparing his passenger jet for take-off . He had just received clearance from air traffic control and released the aircraft’s brakes, pushing forward on the power levers in the cockpit to open the throttle.

As the plane began to accelerate down the runway at more than 100mph, he began to smell a strange odour described as similar to a ‘central heating boiler’. His throat became very dry and his eyes began to burn. Such was his discomfort that he was forced to hand control of the plane to his co-pilot. His fingers were tingling and his shirt soaked in sweat. He was confused, talking incoherently and unable to answer questions from his co-pilot. He could not accurately do safety checks. An emergency was declared and the flight returned to Belfast…



  1. Thanks for the clarifications – I was on the same plane and described it as very ‘English’ – even the queuing for the hotel vouchers. No shouting just jolly banter and polite queues…

    Of course when I tell the story to my collegues I will inlcude all the drama I can – even though it was not there!


    Comment by Seat2d — 19 February 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  2. I’m glad you’re all safe.

    One thing that disturbs me is how it was reported in the media. We all know how they lie and exaggerate, but to have it confirmed gives it a new edge.

    Comment by Stuart Dobson — 19 February 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  3. So glad all was well, David. I imagine I wouldn’t have been as calm as you.

    Comment by Jane — 19 February 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  4. Interestingly enough I was on the same plane earlier the same day, I noticed on engine start blue / white smoke from the left engine on the 757, there was heavy dark staining on the left wing flaps above the left engine and obvious sign of where paint on the week had been effected by something possibly heat. Perhaps a little smoke could be normal on start but not for 15 seconds – it had me a little worried but appeared to clear away and the crew were in such a hurry I didnt get to raise their attention to it … more interestingly the 757 and 767 use an air bleed system from the engines to provide fresh air into the cabin and cabin pressure … http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5911388/description.html I wonder how related this is …

    Comment by Karl Good — 22 February 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  5. In a bizarre co-incidence, I was in Barcelona at the same time as you were, a couple of years ago. (Though I was a tourist). I took what was probably the same BA flight back. We also had an announcement asking the senior cabin crew member to report to the cockpit immediately. I got a little white knuckled with fear at that point (although no one else seemed to have noticed). It turned out that they were having problems lowering the landing gear. It worked fine eventually and we landed ok. Maybe BA is using the same old aircraft on this route (explaining the coincidence)?

    Comment by Rahul — 28 February 2010 @ 10:32 am

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