14 Jul 2015

Java, 1982: Passenger's ash-hit flight

9:54 am on 14 July 2015

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."

Mount Raung emits a column of ash and steam on 12 July 2015.

Mount Raung - a different volcano to the one that affected BA 9 in 1982 - emits a column of ash on 12 July 2015. Photo: AFP

That's the message the 247 passengers on British Airways Flight 9 (BA 9) from London to Auckland heard in June 1982, after the jumbo jet flew through an ash cloud over the Indonesian island of Java.

For 13 terrifying minutes, the 747 glided towards the ground as the pilots desperately tried to restart the engines.

This flight - more than 30 years ago - is why airlines have been delaying flights to Bali as another mountain, Mt Raung, erupts on Java. Thousands of passengers have been stranded in recent days.

Virgin and Jetstar have now started flying passengers out and Air New Zealand has a flight scheduled to leave Auckland for Bali at 10am - but its departure will depend on conditions.

G-BDXH, the aircraft involved in the ash cloud incident in 1982, photographed at San Francisco Airport in 1980.

G-BDXH, the aircraft involved in the ash cloud incident in 1982, photographed at San Francisco Airport in 1980. Photo: Richard Silagi / Wikipedia / GNU Free Documentation License

In 1982, Angelika Niall was on board BA 9.

"We had an inkling a few minutes before, when we actually saw that there was fire coming out of all four engines," she told Morning Report's Susie Ferguson.

"The first part was actually that the cabin filled with smoke - but at that stage you could still smoke, and our steward in our area went around and checked to see whether anyone was smoking a cigar, but it got more and more.

"Then when we looked out of the window we saw the four engines having big kind-of blow-torches coming out of the end."

Mrs Niall said she could see three of the engines from her seat, which was just behind their position on the jet.

After the announcement came, she said, the passengers stayed frozen in their seats. "Only if you can save your own life, you panic - but we were just sitting there frozen... You just sat there and you just waited for the big bang to happen."

She described the pilot, Captain Eric Moody, as a "genius" and said he brought the jet down in several stages.

"He had to actually keep the speed up so he went on a slope and then he levelled out, to get more time to think, so it was like a big staircase... It was not a sudden fall or anything.

"He knew that the jumbo is actually able to glide so he was confident he could actually glide quite a bit with us. But you lose speed when you don't go in a sharper angle down, that's the problem."

The jet's engines eventually restarted and the captain landed the plane safely - against the odds, Mrs Niall said.

"All his instruments didn't work properly - the height measure, the speed measure... The radar, the angle at the airport that gives you the angle to land was actually out of function at Jakarta, so he had virtually [to] rely on his crooked instruments and on the visibility.

"It was just like a blind landing and it was a very smooth landing. It was just one of the best I've ever had."

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