Just before the UK’s deadliest air crash, the pilot of the plane was embroiled in what one witness called ‘the most violent argument he had ever heard’.
British European Airways Flight 548 was a scheduled passenger flight from London Heathrow to Brussels which crashed near Staines, Middlesex shortly after takeoff on June 18, 1972.
The crash, which killed all 118 people on board, remains the deadliest non-terrorism related plane crash in British aviation history.
Feelings were hot among British pilots following a hard-fought labor dispute, with battle lines drawn between young pilots who wanted better pay and conditions and older, more traditional pilots.
BA 548 pilot Stanley Key, who had flown RAF aircraft in the Second World War, had strongly opposed the strike.
Key’s stance on the strike had stirred up deep feelings among his colleagues.
Graffiti criticizing him was found on several BEA planes – including the Hawker Siddeley Trident he was flying on the fateful day in June.
Scribbled on the table in the flight engineer’s tray were the ominous words “The key must go”.
Just over an hour before the plane took off, a vicious argument broke out between Key and another BA pilot named Flavell.
It later emerged that Key suffered from a heart condition which may have been significantly aggravated by the explosion with Flavell.
A spike in blood pressure that burst weak blood vessels and opened up a piece of his arterial wall is said to have caused Key increasing pain as he prepared for his pre-flight checks.
Air traffic controllers noted that Key responded tersely to their calls, perhaps revealing the pain he was feeling. His condition was reported in the popular press at the time as a “heart attack”.
As Flight 548 reached 1,770 feet, traveling at 162 knots (about 186 mph), Key pulled a lever next to the Trident which activated a control surface that dramatically reduced its speed.
The Trident entered a fatal stall.
Key and his 22-year-old NCO, Jeremy Keighley, were completely startled by the sudden burst of warning sounds and lights that shattered the peace of the cockpit.
An automatic safety system called a “stick pusher” dived the plane to increase its speed, but someone in the cockpit overran the system twice, trying to raise the plane’s nose.
This only worsened the already critical stall.
BEA Flight 548 fell from the sky almost vertically, hitting the ground tail-first and narrowly missing a set of power lines. The Trident shattered into several pieces, creating a horribly tangled mass of metal and body.
A nurse, who lived nearby, rushed to the scene and found two passengers who still showed signs of life. None of them unfortunately survived long enough to make it to the hospital.
Following the crash, a controversial inquest found that Key’s heart condition may have contributed significantly to the accident.
One of the report’s recommendations, which has remained in force to this day, was that all civil aircraft carrying UK registered passengers over 27,000 kg (60,000 lb) in total weight should be equipped with cockpit voice recorders. becoming mandatory on UK-registered large airliners from 1973.