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Aviation: Kegworth remembered

Thirty years ago, a Boeing 737-400 that was less than three months old and had only 521 hours on the clock crashed on the M1 motorway less than a mile from the end of the runway at East Midlands Airport. Of 126 souls on board, 47 lost their lives and another 74 suffered serious injuries.

The Aviation Oracle remembers the evening of January 8, 1989 almost as if it was yesterday. I'd been in London for most of the day and with the flight from Heathrow back to East Midlands (EMA) booked full, I asked to travel home via Belfast. Fate then intervened and a no-show meant I got a seat on the direct flight back to base at the last minute. Had that not happened, I could have been on BD92 that evening. I lingered around EMA for a while after I landed and then dropped in on a friend. As I drove home, initial reports of a major incident at East Midlands Airport started to be broadcast on the radio.

At first it was a DC-9 and that almost certainly meant British Midland, the airline I worked for at the time. Then things changed, and it was a Boeing 737. Although the news was still horrible to hear my mood lightened slightly: "Thank God it's not one of ours" I remember thinking, because at the time we didn't fly 737s to EMA. I was obviously mindful that many people could have lost their lives, but presumed that the unfolding tragedy involved Britannia Airways or Orion Airways, the two carriers that flew 737s into the airport regularly in the late '80s.

BD92 crashed onto the embankment of the M1 motorway at Kegworth, less than a mile from the runway at East Midlands Airport, on January 8 1998. (Air Accident Investigation Board)

As further reports filtered through, suggestions that a British Midland aircraft was involved started to emerge again but I recall asking myself "how could it be a BM 737?" By then I was really worried though - not just about the passengers but about colleagues who might have been involved. I remained glued to the news after I got home, and slowly the jigsaw was pieced together. BD92, a Heathrow to Belfast International flight operated by Boeing 737-4Y0 G-OBME had gone down just short of the runway at EMA, after it diverted following an engine failure. I was gutted. I'd travelled between Heathrow and Edinburgh on the flight deck jumpseat of that very same aircraft just a few days earlier. I even remember the pilots commenting on there being slightly more vibration from the engine that ultimately failed - maybe coincidence, but with hindsight very prophetic.

As the reports continued it was confirmed that a British Midland flight was involved, and that meant there was a very real chance colleagues I'd met were affected.

British Midland Boeing 737-4Y0 G-OBME, brand new at the time, photographed less than two months before the Kegworth disaster.

Monday was just a daze. There was chaos on the roads because the M1 was closed, and everyone who did get into the office just sat in almost stunned silence. The death toll was mounting. For decades British Midland had flown other airline's castoffs. At the dawn of the airline starting to play the same way as major players in the industry, Kegworth happened. How could an almost brand new 737 - only the fifth to be acquired by the firm - go down in such a tragic manner?

As the casualty figures firmed up, reality struck us all - although innocent, we were part of a mechanism that cost customers their lives. But Kegworth wasn't about the staff in an office in Castle Donington - it was about the people who had died or suffered devastating injuries, along with their friends, families and relatives.

Although most of us who worked for the airline didn't suffer a bereavement we cannot - must not - forget January 8, 1989. Everyone in the industry must constantly be aware that one small fault, one tiny error, can have devastating effects that extend far beyond an immediate circle of co-workers and friends.

There was plenty learning, and it wasn't just what came out of the Air Accidents Investigation Board report. I never ever - before or after Kegworth - hand any reservations or concerns about getting on a British Midland aircraft. But things changed after BD92. Simple things like not pushing the rules to the limits even while staying on the right side of them - instead starting to operate well within them and doing things differently and better whenever possible.

Some readers might suggest that the above is self indulgence on my part - and its true that there were many people much more badly affected than me. But whether we were directly involved or not, what is important is that we all remember... What happened, the effect it had on the lives of many people, and that we must all do what we can to reduce the changes of it happening again.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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