Every person will, at some point, encounter an extraordinary situation in which regulations or prior training will incline them to take one course of action, but the specifics of the scenario will lead their instinct to override it and choose another. Most of us will not be placed in a situation where that call is time-critical and the course of hundreds of lives will depend on the outcome.
On January 17th, 2008, the flight crew of ill-fated Speedbird 38 (BA038) made a last-minute adjustment to their flap settings, opting to extend their touchdown zone rather than have the guts ripped out of their crippled steed by Runway 27L’s localizer array and approach lighting.
Captain Peter Burkill altered the flap settings to reduce drag when the Boeing Co. 777 was only 240 feet above the ground, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch said in a report today. That delayed the impact for 50 meters (164 feet) and the plane came down on a grass apron with no fatalities.
The Boeing cracked a wing and had its wheels ripped off in the crash on Jan. 17, 2008, after frozen fuel lines stopped its engines from providing sufficient thrust as it neared Heathrow. Had the pilot not adjusted the flaps the 777 would have plowed into a cluster of antennas that communicate with the instrument landing systems of aircraft before touchdown, the AAIB said.
…“You have to take your hat off to Captain Burkill because while reducing the amount of flap helps maintain speed it also diminishes lift and it’s something you never, ever do,” said Kieran Daly, an air-safety commentator and former pilot. “So really it’s an extraordinary thing. An act of genius.”
– Prione, Sabine. “British Airways Pilot Averted Worse Crash, Study Says.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 9 February 2010.
Despite that good decision, the award of the BA Safety Medal (only awarded three times previously), and a later return to flying duties, Captain Burkill took voluntary redundancy and left British Airways in 2009.