I’ve profiled airline disasters on this blog before. All are tragic–some more tragic than others–and some, while still heartbreaking, manage to bring out the best in people. Here is a story in that latter category. Forty-seven years ago today, on April 8, 1968, BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Flight 712, known alternately as Speedbird 712 or “Whiskey Echo,” went down in a fireball on a runway at London’s Heathrow Airport shortly after takeoff. Five people died and 38 were injured. While the crash of Flight 712 was nowhere near as catastrophic as various other air disasters in terms of death toll, the story of this disaster is interesting and unusual for a number of reasons.
Whiskey Echo was a Boeing 707, one of the fleet of new world-spanning jets introduced in the 1950s that truly brought air travel to the masses. The aircraft was built in 1962 and began flying for BOAC that year. Flight 712 was scheduled to be a long haul. Scheduled to leave shortly after 3:30 that Monday afternoon, the flight was headed from Heathrow to Zürich, Switzerland, then on a hop from there to Singapore, and finally to Sydney, Australia. Most of the passengers were going all the way through to Sydney. Among the passengers was pop singer and actor Mark Wynter, and Katriel Katz, Israel’s former ambassador to the Soviet Union. The crew included a 22-year-old stewardess, Barbara Jane Harrison–known simply as Jane to her friends–from Bradford, England. Jane was a pleasant young working-class woman. Previous to working for BOAC, she did various odd jobs including babysitting, and once babysat Jason Connery, son of James Bond actor Sean Connery.
This rare, dramatic shot captures BOAC Flight 712 during its brief flight, and shows the engine falling away from the aircraft.
Flight 712 left the Heathrow gate a few minutes late and took off at 3:27 PM. Seconds after the plane lifted into the air there was a loud explosion. It turned out that metal fatigue in one of the engines, built by Rolls-Royce, caused a part to break out of its casing. Sparks ignited fuel flowing through the engine which began a sudden fast-moving fire. The pilots instantly knew there was a problem, but one of them hit the wrong emergency switch. The correct one would have cut fuel to the burning engine, but his failure to do that made the fire worse. Essentially, Whiskey Echo’s wing exploded and the dying engine literally fell out of the plane. At 3,000 feet in altitude, with a wing on fire and the plane coming apart the pilots circled around to make an emergency landing on another runway. This was extremely risky, as the runway wasn’t long enough to handle the Boeing 707.
Almost miraculously the pilots managed to land the burning plane. The last flight had lasted barely more than three minutes. But as the plane slammed to a halt and the flight crew began evacuating the passengers, the fire, which had spread to the oxygen tanks, quickly grew worse. Most of the passengers managed to escape through a mid-fuselage door, but as the fire grew more intense, escape routes were cut off. Jane Harrison was stationed near the rear door. The escape slide had inflated, but it was twisted around. Nevertheless she helped passengers jump down the twisted slide, and in fact pushed some who were too terrified to make the leap. All of them survived.
Nearly everyone got off the plane, but as the rear slide was punctured and deflated–making the escape route a raw unbroken drop to the tarmac below–there were still four passengers trapped inside. One of them was a severely disabled woman, another an eight-year-old girl. Jane paused at the rear door and to observers it looked like she was about to jump off herself, but then she turned back inside the burning fuselage to try to save the four remaining passengers. She didn’t make it, and neither did they. After the fire investigators found their charred bodies bunched up near the rear door. They had died of asphyxiation.
Barbara Jane Harrison, age 22, received the second-highest award in the British Empire posthumously for her heroism during the crash. People still put flowers on her grave.
The picture at the top of this article shows the fiery wreckage of Flight 712, and looking at it, it’s amazing that anyone survived at all. The five deaths in the disaster were tragic, but the actions of Barbara Jane Harrison were universally hailed as heroic. She could have jumped to safety but instead turned back into the burning plane to try to save the remaining passengers–and died in the process. Anthony Crosland, a high-ranking British politician responsible for transportation matters, was so impressed by Jane’s sacrifice that he wrote a letter to the private secretary of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister, recommending she receive the George Cross–the second highest decoration in Britain, second only to the Victoria Cross which is awarded for military valor. On August 7, 1969, Queen Elizabeth II awarded the George Cross posthumously to Jane Harrison, who was only 22 when she died. She is the only woman to have received the award in peacetime.
Air disasters are horrific events, and when they happen there’s more than enough tragedy to go around. But sometimes heroism comes to the fore in such times, and in otherwise ordinary people. As long as we honor courage and selflessness, we should be honoring people like Barbara Jane Harrison.