Ahead of the 50th anniversary of what remains the most devastating air accident in British history, we take a look back at how the 1972 Staines Air Disaster was reported by the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Express the following morning, offering a rare glimpse into how fresh minds perceived the incident via eye-witness accounts and early insider theories regarding potential causes.
To revisit the other events that dominated news coverage half a century ago, check out our wonderful collection of authentic 1972 newspapers.
Turn the page to:
- What was the Staines Air Disaster?
- “Britain’s Worst Air Disaster: 118 Die in BEA Trident Crash”
- “Two Minutes to Disaster”
- “The ‘Vultures’ Who Jammed the Roads”
- Public Inquiry
On June 18, 1972, British European Airways Flight 548 departed London Heathrow, bound for Brussels, carrying 109 commercial passengers and nine crew members. After just three minutes in the air, the Trident aircraft suffered a deep stall and crashed into a field in Staines, narrowly avoiding the busy A30 road. 116 of the passengers were pronounced dead at the scene, while the other two died in the succeeding hours.
The first Staines Air Disaster newspaper report we’ll focus on is from the June 19, 1972 edition of the Daily Telegraph. The front page of the Telegraph features two photographs: one of the wreckage mere minutes after the crash, and another of Heathrow Airport’s Roman Catholic chaplain Peter Knott administering the Last Rites to 60 victims.
The article begins:
“ALL 188 people aboard a B E A Trident died last night as the air-liner crashed in a field at Staines minutes after taking off from Heathrow. It was the worst air disaster in British aviation history.”
It continues with a summary of the impact:
“As it came down a few hundred yards from Staines High Street the plane broke in two. The fuselage ploughed into a line of trees and the tail section – hurled 50 yards away – burst into flames.”
With no survivors at all to relay their experience aboard the flight, the article utilizes eye-witness accounts to best describe the moments when the plane came down. 15-year-old Adrian Bailey is quoted:
“I heard the plane circling overhead and then there was a spluttering sound as though the engines were cutting out.”
What Bailey presumably heard was the deep stall suffered by the aircraft in the final minute of its flight, the suspected main cause of the crash. Bailey continued by describing the audible moment of impact:
“There was a thud like a clap of thunder and the windows in the house shook.”
Others claimed to have actually seen the plane’s tragic descent:
“Witnesses said the aircraft narrowly missed plunging into a nearby reservoir and skimmed over power lines.”
17-year-old Michael Stevens offered a particularly lucid account:
“I saw the tail section of the aircraft falling away from the fuselage. The tail section hit the ground and burst into flames.”
But perhaps the most detailed chronicle came from a member of the Telegraph’s own staff, photographer Srdja Djukanovic, who witnessed the crash while driving:
“I COULDN’T believe it at first. A plane glided across the road in front of me and disappeared behind some trees on my right.”
“Other motorists were jumping out of their cars… I grabbed three cameras and followed… I saw the tail jutting out from behind the trees and shuddered at the thought of what I would find.”
“The tail was on one side, and then about a football field away the concertina-ed nose.”
“Two or three people were lying in the grass, all dead… People were scrambling all over the debris trying to find signs of life. But there wasn’t any.”
“I wanted to yell or scream or cry. Somebody said: ‘Oh my God, what can we do. They’re all dead’.”
In searching for answers regarding the cause of the disaster, the Telegraph article disregards mechanical issues, noting that the plane, call sign Papa India, was “one of the longest-serving Tridents in BEA’s fleet”, and had been “given a new certificate of airworthiness” three years earlier. The certificate had been awarded after another aircraft crashed into Papa India on the runway in 1968; all necessary repairs were made and the collision is not deemed to have had any impact on the Staines incident.
The Telegraph also rules out foul play in line with a statement from the airline’s chairman, Mr. Henry Marking:
“Nothing was heard from the aircraft’s captain which would indicate anything was wrong.”
The back page of the Telegraph included a full casualty list to support the summary given on the front page:
“A baby was one of the 109 passengers. There were 37 Britons – including the crew – 29 Americans, 29 Belgians and 12 Irish. The passengers included about a dozen doctors travelling to a medical convention and a group of Irish industrialists who were going to Brussels on a Common Market fact-finding tour.”
It also mentions how an impending strike had affected the head count on what would have usually been a quiet Sunday flight:
“The plane was full because of a weekend scramble for seats by travellers worried about the chances of being stranded in Britain by today’s [pilot strike].”
Indeed, the plane was 24 kilograms overweight at take-off, which was initially considered as a possible underlying cause of the accident, as it resulted in the centre of gravity being marginally forward of BEA limits. However, the subsequent public inquiry concluded that this did not contribute to the aircraft’s demise.
A heartbreaking end-note to the Telegraph’s front page coverage was a brief section relaying the “hysterical” scenes at Brussels airport, where the Trident had been due to land:
“Mrs McClair… collapsed when she heard of the deaths. She and her husband, Mr. Malcolm McClair, were waiting for their daughter, aged 26, to return from a holiday to Scotland.”
The front page of the Daily Express featured a large photograph of the wrecked middle section of the Trident, described as “like a broken egg-shell”.
The opening page one paragraph reads:
“THE worst air disaster Britain has known yesterday cost the lives of 118 people within two minutes of take-off from London’s Heathrow Airport.”
In its opening summary, the article concentrates on the aircraft’s pilot, Captain Stanley Key, and his efforts to crash land the plane after he “radioed that he was in trouble”:
“In a ‘brave but hopeless attempt to save his passengers’ he made for the only open space he could find – a meadow of elms and oaks. He flew low over the road, as motorists braked, skimmed lines of power cables, missed the Crooked Billet pub, and plunged into the field he had picked out.”
However, as an airport spokesman relayed:
“The plane came down very heavily because of the apparent loss of engine power. It hit the ground with a tremendous bump and immediately broke up. Most of the people aboard must have died instantly.”
Like the Telegraph, the Express dedicates a lot of column inches to eye-witness accounts of the plane’s descent. Nine-year-old Paul Burke said:
“Suddenly we saw the Trident coming just over the trees, about the height of a house. The engine cut, I’m quite clear about that. Then it just dropped like a stone and slithered along the ground behind the trees. We ran towards it and there was an explosion and the tail part blew backwards across the field. I heard a voice scream just once.”
Paul’s brother Trevor, 13, added:
“When the engines cut the pilot tried to glide the plane in. It had its nose slightly down, but it landed flat, except that the nose got pushed under. Just before the plane had been going very slowly, almost hanging in the air like a bird.”
Motorist John Blunt, one of the first people into the field following the crash, said:
“I saw the Trident apparently taking off. It was quite low and heading directly towards us when it just fell out of the sky. It hit the ground with an enormous bang just about 50 yards off the main road.”
Moor keeper Ernest Dowling said:
“I heard the plane go over making a loud whirring noise. I realised this was because none of its engines were running.”
“I have never seen anything so tragic”
The rest of the Express article mostly focuses on the “hopeless hunt for survivors”. Mr. Colin Sleep, who had been called to help by the two Burke brothers, said:
“People were hanging out of the windows. We tried to drag them out but couldn’t because they were all strapped in… Then we heard a shout. It was a man, grey-haired and about 50. He was moaning ‘Oh my legs, oh my legs’. We told him to keep still. Then the firemen cut him away.”
“I went to the cockpit. One of the crew moved a little but it was impossible to get him free because of the amount of metal twisted around him.”
The firemen of which Mr. Sleep spoke of had little luck in retrieving anyone from the wreckage:
“As firemen, police and soldiers tore back fuselage to get at the passengers trapped inside – all still had their safety belts fastened – it burst into flames.”
The still-conscious man described by Mr. Sleep as being cut away by firemen was presumably the Dublin businessman who made it as far as the hospital, one of only two passengers recovered alive from the debris. The other was a young girl, carried from the wreckage by a doctor:
“Two, however, were picked out alive: A little girl, one of five children in the airliner, and an Irish business man, but she died in the ambulance and he in the hospital.”
The Express coverage ends by mentioning the effects civilians had on the emergency services:
“They found another obstacle in the crowds who gathered to watch. Police appealed them to go away.”
“There was concern too at the sightseers. Even when it was getting dark thousands of them, many with children, were still there, hampering the police who were searching in knee-high undergrowth.”
“Roads for 18 miles were jammed.”
However, the Express’ perspective of the cars blocking the roads was in places somewhat empathetic:
“There were, of course, many trying to get to the airport because they had relatives and friends on the Trident.”
By contrast, the Daily Mirror’s view of these road-users was unequivocally damning, exemplified by their back page headline:
“’VULTURES’ SWARM TO CRASH”
The article echoes the Express’ sentiments that emergency services were hampered by the “eighteen-mile traffic jams”, but does so in a far more critical tone throughout:
“Thousands left their cars and scrambled across fields as fireman and ambulance men fought to free bodies trapped in the tangled wreckage – despite police loud-speaker appeals for the rescuers to be given elbow room.”
“The man told me, ‘I’m off to see it.’ I was amazed – but nearly every road was blocked by gawpers.”
“An angry policeman said that sightseers were just like vultures.”
Somewhat ironically, the Mirror’s front page is adorned by a huge photograph of the burning wreckage in lieu of a written article.
The Mirror’s coverage also deviates from the Express and Telegraph by naming all of the flight crew, including ages, hometowns and in some cases family members. The page also features photographs of the pilot Stanley Key, second officer Simon Ticehurst and stewardess Jennifer Mowat.
In addition, it analyses the potential part mandatory noise restrictions may have played in the disaster. The article hypothesizes that the fatal engine stalling may have occurred due to rule forcing pilots to “throttle back to reduce noise as they climb”, allegedly at great risk:
“The Department of Trade and Industry take measurements to make sure they do so – and the pilot is reported if levels are exceeded. Pilots have always hated the procedures. They have complained that safety margins are seriously reduced.”
The Mirror’s editorial choice to highlight both the identities of the flight staff and the noise reduction rules seems particularly shrewd in hindsight, namely upon consideration of the public inquiry report into the causes and circumstances of the accident, published a year later.
The document states that the most immediate cause of the accident was “a failure by the handling pilot to achieve and maintain adequate speed after noise-abatement procedures.”
The document goes on to mention Captain Key’s abnormal heart condition which may have impaired his judgment, the presence of off-duty Captain John Collins possibly distracting P3 Ticehurst from his responsibilities, and the general inexperience of P2 Keighley, who had only 29 hours as P2 under his belt prior to the flight and had not completed his P3 training as standard.
The overall findings of the inquiry were that the crash was caused chiefly by human error, deriving from lack of judgment, training and knowledge on the part of the pilots on board. While the report acknowledged that the noise-abatement procedure did negatively affect the aircraft and contributed to its loss of speed, it refused to list it as a direct cause of the accident, stating that “aeronautical and social considerations have to be blended as best as possible” and that the procedures “were safe and were not too demanding on either crew or aircraft”.
The inquiry’s recommendations regarding the “overdue” installment of cockpit voice recorders led to their inception across all British-registered airliners.