What Caused The 2008 British Airways 777 Crash At Heathrow?

The Boeing 777 is a popular widebody family, with more than 1,600 examples having been delivered to customers since the mid-1990s. In terms of its safety record, it has been involved in seven hull losses since its commercial introduction with United Airlines in June 1995. The first of these was the crash of British Airways flight BA38 in January 2008. But what caused the aircraft to come down short of the runway at London Heathrow?

British Airways Boeing 777 BA38 Getty
The aircraft came to a stop just short of runway 27L. Photo: Getty Images

The flight in question

British Airways designated the number BA38 to a scheduled flight between Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and its hub at London Heathrow (LHR). Data from RadarBox.com shows that this route last used this number on January 29th, 2020. However, in that instance, the service departed from the new Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX).

On January 18th, 2008, flight BA38 crashed just short of Heathrow’s runway 27L while attempting to land in the British capital. Although the aircraft involved was damaged beyond repair and subsequently written off, there were, thankfully, no fatalities.

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British Airways Boeing 777
G-YMMM at LHR on January 18th, 2003, exactly five years before its crash. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The flight was just over 60% full, with 136 passengers onboard out of a total capacity of 220 seats across three classes. 16 crew members brought the total number of occupants up to 152. Of these, 47 sustained injuries in the crash, of which one was serious. So what exactly were the key factors in this incident, which was the Boeing 777 family’s first hull loss?

What caused BA38 to crash?

Investigators found the root cause of the crash of flight BA38 to be the formation of ice crystals in the aircraft’s fuel. Its route from Beijing to London had taken it over Siberia, Mongolia, and Scandinavia. Here wintery conditions had seen the temperature at the flight’s cruising altitude of 34,800 to 40,000 feet range between −65 °C (−85 °F) and −74 °C (−101 °F).

BA38 Map
A map showing the path of BA38 (in red) from where it first touched down to its final resting place just short of runway 27L. Image: Markie via Wikimedia Commons

While the fuel itself remained no colder than −34 °C (−29 °F), comfortably above its freezing point, small amounts of water in the fuel did freeze due to the cold conditions. When the aircraft began descending towards Heathrow, the air temperature rose, causing the ice to soften enough for it to flow forward to the fuel-oil heat exchangers (FOHEs).

The presence of the ice in the FOHEs restricted the amount of fuel that was able to flow to the plane’s engines. This starved the powerplants of fuel, and they were unable to respond to inputs demanding increased thrust. The plane’s speed dropped as low as 108 knots (200 km/h) at an altitude of just 200 feet.

The aircraft’s first officer took manual control of the aircraft shortly after this, while the captain reduced its flaps to reduce drag. This also prevented them from striking landing lights when the aircraft came down shortly afterward. The fuel starvation and its knock-on effects ultimately saw flight BA38 crash on the grass at Heathrow, some 270 meters shy of the runway.

BA38’s crash, which was caused by ice-induced fuel starvation, temporarily closed Heathrow, prompting several diversions and cancellations. Photo: John Taggart via Flickr

The aircraft involved

The plane that was involved in the crash of flight BA38 was a Boeing 777-200ER with the registration G-YMMM. According to Planespotters.net, it was 6.7 years old at the time of the accident, having initially joined BA on May 31st, 2001.

Over the years, the airline has flown a total of 49 777-200s, of which 44 have been the ER (Extended Range) version. G-YMMM was written off due to the crash, while its remaining 43 777-200ER counterparts are still a part of BA’s fleet even today. Meanwhile, the airline retired the last of its standard 777-200s in August 2020.

What do you remember about the accident involving British Airways flight 38? Do you know of any other similar incidents where ice has caused fuel starvation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.