Explosion! Fire! Danger! The press was in its element as BA flight 762 from Heathrow to Oslo had to turn back soon after take-off and make an emergency landing. And there could only be one explanation of the “technical fault” that caused the problem – given by those who are not technically minded, naturally – which was that it was most likely a bird strike.
Quiet day at Heathrow, then
Now, Heathrow does have occasional issues with flocks of birds, but then, so do many other airports: it is a problem that is carefully managed, and had the hacks done a little investigating, they would have found that there had been no other similar reports before the BA flight took off. The idea that a flock would assemble between departures and hit both engines of the next plane out is not credible.
Because both engines were affected by something: part of the cowling was clearly missing from both left and right power plants. And the same part of the cowling coming adrift is not the usual consequence of a bird strike. Nor is an engine fire the inevitable result of one. But instead of thoughtful analysis, we were treated to wild speculation laced with some jaw-dropping ineptitude.
And the prize for the latter has to go to the Standard, with “The stricken aircraft had taken off on the southern runway but performed an emergency U-turn on to the northern runway”. The wonders of turning proper newspapers into free sheets, eh? Elsewhere, it was all bird strikes. The Mail, after a promising start where it noted that the left engine’s cowling worked loose before take-off, joined in.
The Sun did not even bother to think about such things: “There was speculation that the aircraft had flown into a flock of birds” it told readers. The Express concurred: “It was believed the engine could have caught fire after a possible ‘bird strike’”. The Daily Star agreed: “Speculation about what caused the fire hinted at the plane flying in to a flock of birds, though there is no evidence to confirm that”.
Evidence? A Desmond title talks about evidence? Whatever. Such was the herd instinct that the Mail, of all titles, which had included “The most likely theory at the centre of the investigation is that maintenance crews simply failed to properly lock the metal cowls which protect the engines before take-off” in its report, had gone on to devote so much space to a non-existent bird strike.
The AAIB has confirmed that, on take-off, “the fan cowl doors from both engines detached, puncturing a fuel pipe on the right engine” (hence the fire), and that this was because “the fan cowl doors on both engines were left unlatched during maintenance and this was not identified prior to aircraft departure”, which was probably to sort the problem from the previous flight that the Mail reported.
But such is the pressure to say something – anything – that anything gets printed.