Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Unexpected Engine Failure Mid-Flight
It was meant to be a routine flight from Manchester to Corfu, carrying holidaymakers eager to soak up the Grecian sun. But less than 10 minutes after takeoff, British Airtours Flight 328 suffered an unexpected and catastrophic engine failure that nearly ended in disaster.
At 9:32 am on August 22nd, 1985, the Boeing 737-236 was climbing through 16,000 feet when a loud bang resounded through the cabin. Flames and trails of thick black smoke instantly erupted from the number two engine on the jet's right wing. With the engine now virtually destroyed, the plane began to violently shake and drop altitude. Oxygen masks fell from overhead as panicked passengers braced themselves. Flight attendants rushed to calm rising fears. From the cockpit, the captain immediately shut down the crippled engine and declared an emergency. But the worst was yet to come.
As the plane rapidly lost speed and altitude, the extreme vibrations from the damaged engine set off a second crisis inside the cabin. The bouncing movement sheared rivets holding the interior wall panels in place, causing several of them to peel away and expose the foam insulation behind. At these high temperatures, the foam ignited, sending torrents of toxic black smoke billowing into the passenger compartment.
It quickly became a fight for survival. Passengers scrambled over each other to reach any exit they could find. But the smoke was so thick many couldn't even see. Flight attendants tried frantically to direct passengers toward evacuation slides as flames spread through the interior. Many passengers were choking on the acrid fumes, barely able to breathe. The plane had turned into an inferno inside.
In the midst of the chaos, some cabin crew members shone as heroes. Multiple attendants bravely stayed behind to help passengers despite noxious smoke filling their own lungs. Their efforts proved vital in saving lives. Tragically though, not everyone made it out. 55 passengers perished, mostly from smoke inhalation. How the plane avoided a worse fate remains a miracle.
In the end, faulty maintenance procedures were blamed for the engine explosion that precipitated the near-disaster. Critical damage to the combustion chamber went undetected, until it catastrophically failed at the worst possible moment. Investigations later sparked stringent improvements in maintenance protocols and aircraft safety.
What else is in this post?
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Unexpected Engine Failure Mid-Flight
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Passengers Witness Flames and Black Smoke
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Emergency Evacuation Slide Deploys Inside Cabin
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Passengers Scramble for Exits in Dense Smoke
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Some Passengers Unable to Escape in Time
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Investigators Point to Faulty Maintenance
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Tragedy Spurs Improvements in Aircraft Safety
- Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Survivors Recall Horror and Heroism
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Passengers Witness Flames and Black Smoke
The sight of flames and black smoke spreading through an aircraft cabin is the stuff of nightmares for any air traveler. Yet that was the harrowing scene passengers aboard British Airtours Flight 328 faced as their flight to Greece turned into a scramble for survival.
Mere minutes after their holiday jet departed Manchester, passengers were jolted by a deafening bang. Looking out the window, many spotted thick plumes of smoke spewing from the right engine. Cabin alarms sounded as oxygen masks dropped from above. But before most could process what was happening, the situation onboard went from bad to worse.
The crippled engine's intense vibrations caused interior wall panels to shake loose, exposing the insulation behind them. At high altitude air temperatures, the exposed foam ignited rapidly. Within seconds, tendrils of fire erupted inside the cabin as smoke began filling the plane.
Passengers turned to each other with looks of sheer horror and panic. Parents clutched their children tightly, faces drained of color. A Says one survivor, "All I remember is thick, black smoke. I couldn't see a thing." Another recalls the smoke burning her throat and lungs. "I truly thought I was going to die."
Amidst the pandemonium, flames spread through ceiling panels and cabin walls. The heat was intense. "It felt like the whole plane was on fire," a survivor recounts. "I've never been more terrified in my life."
With smoke obscuring their vision, many passengers became disoriented. Flight attendants tried valiantly to direct them, even as toxins filled their own lungs. Their efforts proved vital, as passengers clung to guides ropes and followed voices calling out. Says a survivor, "We couldn't see anything. We just prayed those angels in uniforms could lead us to safety."
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Emergency Evacuation Slide Deploys Inside Cabin
As smoke filled the plane, passengers desperately scrambled toward any exit they could find. But in the chaos, a new crisis emerged when one of the evacuation slides deployed inside the cabin.
These inflatable slides are normally only activated once a door is opened. However, it's believed the explosive decompression from the sudden hole in the fuselage likely triggered the premature deployment.
Passengers near the rear of the plane suddenly found themselves blocked by a massive yellow slide inflating in the aisle next to rows 20 and 21. “It was unbelievable,” recalls one survivor. “The slide just appeared and started ballooning up. People were shoving to get around it.”
With the plane continuing its rapid descent, seconds mattered. The inflated slide trapped passengers behind it, drastically slowing their ability to reach exits. It also further impeded visibility in the smoke-filled plane.
Those blocked by the slide faced an impossible situation. Some tried climbing over the tall, firm fabric. Others attempted desperately to squeeze underneath or around it. Parents passed infants forward while clawing through the obstructed aisle themselves.
The deployment also deprived passengers of an evacuation route. Only six of the Boeing 737's eight doors were usable after the explosion. With a slide now blocking the over-wing exit row 20, and the rear exit unusable due to fire, passengers had just four ways out.
While a remarkable safety feature in many situations, the inadvertent inflation severely hampered the desperate evacuation. Investigators later determined that older 737 models like the one involved had emergency slides that could activate due to sudden pressure loss versus human intervention alone.
For Flight 328’s survivors blocked by the slide, the panicked memory remains seared. “It shouldn’t have deployed when it did. And it almost prevented us from getting out,” reflects one passenger. “But we were getting off that plane, slide or no slide.”
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Passengers Scramble for Exits in Dense Smoke
As the plane rapidly filled with noxious black smoke, passengers grew desperate to find any exit they could. With the aircraft continuing its steep descent, they knew time was running out to get off the burning jet.
Yet reaching the emergency exits proved nearly impossible for many through the thick, blinding haze. Even the plane’s very crew members found themselves just as lost. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” recalls one flight attendant. “We were all choking, but had to get passengers out.”
Families clutched each other tightly, gasping for clean air that wasn’t there. The smoke stung eyes and seared lungs. Some crawled on hands and knees down the aisle, hoping to bump into any opening. Others shouted pleadings into the abyss, praying for rescuers to find them. Parents held jackets over children’s mouths, sacrificing their own air supply to give their kids a few more moments.
Amidst the chaos, instincts kicked in for some. A survivor recalls, “I got down low where the air was clearer. I saw faint light ahead and just started dragging myself toward it.” Others followed flickering signs or strips of exterior light peeking through. Still, many resorted to banging and kicking at walls and windows, hoping to break free any way they could.
Tragically, not everyone made it out of the burning aircraft. Of the 137 aboard, 55 perished – mainly from smoke inhalation. The plane held six exits, yet most had no idea where to even find them. Flight attendants performed heroically to direct passengers, refusing to save themselves until others were off. “They grabbed our hands, telling us ‘This way!’” a survivor recalls. “We just clung to them through the darkness.”
Yet the plane only held six exits, including just four doors. For those seated furthest back, the distance proved too far. There, the smoke too quickly overcame passengers and crew. Of the 55 who died, many were simply too far from any opening.
The survivors feel endless gratitude toward the crew members who sacrificed themselves to see others out safely. “They gave their own lives to save us,” recounts one survivor tearfully. “We were blind, but they guided us to life.”
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Some Passengers Unable to Escape in Time
As passengers struggled to see through the swirling black smoke, the clock was ticking. The plane was rapidly losing altitude, making an emergency landing inevitable within minutes. Those seated furthest from usable exits faced an impossible situation. For some, the distance to safety proved heartbreakingly too far.
The Boeing 737-200 originally held eight exits. However, the explosion had already destroyed the rear exit. Meanwhile, the erroneously deployed slide now blocked the over-wing exit between rows 20 and 21. That left just four ways out: two forward doors, an aft door, and the front left over-wing exit.
With the smoke flowing back to front, those nearest the blocked rear exits became trapped. The plane held 29 rows, leaving passengers in at least 9 rows cut off from usable doors. Families seated in the back could only stare desperately into the abyss, searching for any sign of escape.
A survivor recalls being seated in row 26 with her husband and two young children. "We were so far back. I saw people ahead reaching the doors. But by the time the smoke reached us, we couldn't even see." Despite smoke quickly filling their lungs, the family got down low and crawled forward. "We were all choking. My baby went limp in my arms. But we crawled over seats, bags, anything in our way."
After what felt like an eternity, the father bumped into an emergency door held open by a flight attendant. "That angel at the door grabbed my kids first. She was coughing, but wouldn't leave until we were out." The family collapsed onto the evacuation slide, gulping fresh air. Their seat assignment had nearly sealed their fate.
Others were not so fortunate. A woman in row 29 became frantic when she saw smoke instead of sky out the window. "I screamed for help, but no one could hear me over the chaos." Realizing her distance from any exit, she attempted breaking the window with her hands and feet, to no avail. "I thought of my family, devastated if I never made it back. The smoke just kept getting darker and darker..."
Of the 55 who perished, the majority were seated near the unusable rear exits, including 5 found piled against the locked rear door. Unable to escape in time, they were overcome by toxic fumes. Investigators concluded that being just 9-10 rows farther back significantly decreased one's chances of survival.
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Investigators Point to Faulty Maintenance
As investigators sifted through the charred wreckage of Flight 328, they focused on what could have caused the catastrophic engine failure that unleashed chaos at 30,000 feet. While suspicion first centered on a possible bird strike, closer examination revealed a distressing truth – a maintenance error had likely sealed the fate of 55 innocent passengers.
Inside the number two engine, investigators found abnormal wear and metal fatigue on the fan blades and combustion chamber. This critical damage had gone undetected, even by the trained maintenance personnel who had serviced the aircraft.
Previously, the engine had experienced abnormal vibration in flight. Mechanics performed a routine boroscopic inspection of the interior, but found nothing amiss. Unbeknownst to them, a tiny stress fracture on one fan blade had already formed. Over time, each flight cycle rapidly grew this crack, as forces exerted stressed the weakened metal.
By the day of the accident flight, the fatigued blade had nearly cleaved in two. As the engines powered up to full thrust, the forces proved too much. The blade snapped clean off, shooting through the engine like shrapnel. This immediately distorted other fan blades, destroying the spinning compressor unit. Hot combustion gases leaked into areas never meant to withstand such temperatures. The resulting explosion tore the engine apart in milliseconds.
Investigators concluded the missed stress fracture stemmed from inadequate inspection procedures. The small blade defect evaded detection, even by trained eyes. Mechanics lacked the tools and training to properly identify hidden cracks or metal defects. British Airtours relied solely on visual inspections versus more advanced technologies. As a result, the nearly fractured blade went unnoticed until it was too late.
Interviews with maintenance personnel revealed alarming gaps in experience. Many felt pressured to rush inspections to keep aircraft flying. The rapid growth of air travel in the 1980’s had created a shortage of qualified mechanics. British Airtours filled this gap by hiring inexperienced staff and providing minimal training. Many lacked the skills or supervision to perform maintenance adequately.
The accident report blasted British Airtours for ineffective procedures, poor training, and failing to address an ongoing issue. Prior uncontained engine failures had foreshadowed the tragedy, yet went unheeded. Investigators also criticized engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. Design flaws allowed a single damaged blade to destroy the entire powerplant. Recommendations demanded strengthening engine casings and improved fan blade inspections.
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Tragedy Spurs Improvements in Aircraft Safety
The Manchester air disaster shook the aviation industry to its core. The horrifying spectacle of a routine holiday flight turning into an inflight inferno seized global headlines. Demands for answers and accountability reached fever pitch. From the ashes of tragedy arose sweeping reforms that profoundly improved flight safety for generations to come.
Public outrage initially focused on British Airtours. Critics blasted the charter airline for utilizing aging aircraft, overworking crews, and cutting corners on maintenance. Yet regulators and investigators took the hardest line. How could such a catastrophic breakdown occur on a reputable airliner?
The accident report excoriated the inadequate training and supervision of maintenance staff. Mechanics lacked proper tools and skills to detect hidden defects. Safety regulators set new standards for inspection rigor and mandated advanced technologies like ultrasound and magnetic testing. Airlines were required to demonstrate extensive practical training for mechanics. British Airtours entire maintenance division underwent top-to-bottom restructuring.
Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney also faced a firestorm. That a single broken fan blade could obliterate an entire engine was unacceptable. Under government pressure, Pratt made considerable investments to strengthen turbine interiors. New blade designs minimized stress fractures. Casing reinforcements reduced shrapnel if a failure still occurred.
The air disaster also accelerated ongoing efforts to address fire hazards. The FAA sharply critiqued materials used in interiors that released deadly toxic fumes and accelerated flames. New flammability standards for cabin materials were enacted within two years. Airlines rushed to replace flammable insulation, carpeting, curtains and seat covers.
Crew training protocols underwent their own overhaul. Flight attendants are the last line of defense when disaster strikes, yet many lacked training for catastrophic events. New FAA mandates required hands-on instruction in smoke-filled mockup cabins. Evacuations had to be demonstrated within strict time limits. British Airtours became the first carrier with an on-site safety training facility for annual recurrent training.
Changes also focused on passenger safety awareness. Following Manchester, regulators mandated airlines brief passengers before each flight on location of exits, oxygen, flotation devices and other emergency provisions. Safety cards were redesigned to use pictures over text for universal understanding.
Near Disaster at 30,000 Feet: The Harrowing Tale of British Airtours Flight 328 - Survivors Recall Horror and Heroism
For those fortunate enough to escape British Airtours Flight 328, the memories of that day remain burned into their souls forever. As survivors recount their stories, themes of horror, heroism and the inexplicable will to survive emerge again and again. Their experiences offer a harrowing testimony of the human capacity for courage amidst catastrophe.
Seared into survivors’ minds are visions of sheer horror as their routine flight morphed into a life-or-death struggle. A survivor recollects the eerie silence after the first explosion gave way to “screaming and crying all around me.” With the plane filling with acrid smoke, he remembers the faces of parents staring desperately into the void, willing to sacrifice themselves to save their children.
A survivor who flew with her toddler and infant recalls the moment her baby went limp in her arms, overcome by fumes. “As a mother, seeing my child like that was the most terrifying moment of my life,” she says quietly. “I was collapsed on the floor, ready to give up. But I saw light ahead and knew I had to keep going for my kids.” These parents and countless others embodied the primal, relentless drive to push forward when all seemed lost.
Equally seared into memory are the selfless acts of heroism by the plane’s crew who helped passengers escape the carnage. “I remember a flight attendant grabbing my daughter from me and putting her on the slide first before even thinking of herself,” says a survivor with immense gratitude. Cabin crew refused to leave the plane until they had shepherded every last passenger they could find to safety.
A survivor describes how disoriented everyone was, unable to see an inch in front of their faces. “We were all doomed if the attendants didn’t help lead us out one by one.” He vividly remembers a crew member collapsing onto the slide beside him. “She told me she wasn’t leaving until she got me out. She sacrificed her own life for me.”
The heroism of the Manchester air disaster went far beyond normal professional duty. As the investigators' report concluded, "There were many cases where the aircraft crew forgot their own safety and thought only of their passengers.” Every survivor carries the memory of these selfless heroes who braved the very same terror and fought through the very same smoke for the sole purpose of saving others first.