Image: Plane debris
Stephen Hird  /  Reuters
The wheels of a British Airways plane appeared to collapse as it landed short of a runway at Heathrow Airport on Thursday, a witness said.
updated 1/17/2008 7:24:29 PM ET 2008-01-18T00:24:29

A British Airways jet carrying 152 people crash-landed Thursday at Heathrow airport, tearing its underbelly, damaging its wings and skidding to a halt before emergency chutes deployed. All aboard escaped safely, but eight people were hurt.

The crash landing caused major delays at Europe’s busiest airport, temporarily halting departures and arrivals while emergency crews worked at the scene.

The British Broadcasting Corp quoted an airport worker as saying the pilot said he had lost all engine and electronics power and had been forced to glide the plane in. "He said he had no warning — it just went," the worker added.

The ITN network reported that the aircraft was a few hundred feet above the ground when engine failure occurred.

Fire trucks surrounded the Boeing 777, which had taken off from Beijing, after it landed early in the afternoon, spraying fire retardant foam around the aircraft.

Two of the plane’s giant wheel units were ripped from the craft during the landing and could be seen on grass near the runway.

Passenger Paul Venter said the trouble started as the aircraft was about to land.

“The wheels came out and went for touchdown, and the next moment we just dropped. I couldn’t tell you how far,” he said.

“I didn’t speak to the pilot, but I saw him, and he looked very pale, but there was no communication in the cabin,” Venter said.

The plane’s wheels appeared to collapse as it came down in the grass in front of the airport’s southern runway, witness John Rowland told the BBC.

'Bang and it skidded sideways'
“It crashed into the runway, debris was flying everywhere, there was an enormous bang and it skidded sideways,” he said.

London Ambulance Service said eight people had been taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

The accident at one of Heathrow’s two runways occurred just before a plane carrying British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a delegation of business leaders, including Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, was about to depart for China. The prime minister’s plane was about half a mile away.

Planes were still taking off and landing on Heathrow’s northern runway, air traffic control company Nats said. Some other flights were diverted to other airports, Heathrow said on its Web site.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch was investigating, British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh told reporters, adding the airline didn’t want to speculate on the cause.

The passengers had been taken to a center, where airline staff were looking after them, Walsh said.

“The customers on board the aircraft are generally in good spirits, I know they are anxious to get back to their friends,” Walsh said. “They are being interviewed by the police until all the relevant details have been taken.”

First 777 accident
It was the first accident involving the Boeing 777 since the plane entered service in 1995, said Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier in Seattle. There are more than 680 in service worldwide.

The 777, one of 42 in the BA fleet, was relatively new at six years old, Walsh said. Boeing said the aircraft was a 777-200 ER with Rolls Royce Trent 895 engines.

“The captain of the aircraft is one of our most experienced and has been flying with us for nearly 20 years,” he said.

Emergency workers surrounded the plane and firefighters sprayed fire retardant foam as a precaution as the 16-member crew evacuated passengers on inflatable chutes.

Passenger Jerome Ensinck told the BBC that he at first thought the plane had made a hard landing.

“There was no indication that we were going to have a bad landing,” he said. “When we hit the ground it was extremely rough.”

“Then the emergency exits were opened and we were all told we should go through as quickly as possible, and the moment I was away from the plane I started to realize that the undercarriage was away, and we had missed the runway, Ensinck said.

“Now I realize I’ve had a close call,” he said.

Wind gust to blame?
Robert Cullemore of Aviation Economics, a London-based aviation consultancy, said a pilot from a competing airline told him officials believed the cause of the accident was wind shear, a sudden gust of wind.

“It can happen anytime anywhere and if it happens you just hope there is no airplane nearby,” Cullemore said.

He said the pilot kept the plane in the air long enough to prevent a disastrous outcome.

“If it had landed 200 meters (656 feet) shorter than it did, it may have hit perimeter fence and obviously some other buildings and the car park, clearly we would be dealing with fatalities and obvious damage,” Cullemore said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: A 'perfect' crash landing

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