On Monday April 8th 1968; BOAC Flight 712 (callsign Speedbird 712) a Boeing 707-465 was scheduled to depart from Heathrow's Terminal 3 at 15:15 GMT (16:15 BST) for the Whiskey Echo long-haul to Sydney, Australia, via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Bombay (now Mumbai), Singapore and Perth.
Looking forward to what should have been an uneventful flight, the crew took position on runway 28L, and after receiving clearance, accelerated down Runway 28L, then taking to the skies as they commenced their long journey at 15:27 GMT with 127 people aboard. Speedbird 712's flight crew were Captain Cliff Taylor, Flight Officer, John Hutchinson, Flight Engineer Thomas Hicks and a check captain Geoffrey Moss.
Seconds after Flight 712 departed Heathrow, there was a loud explosive bang, followed by heavy vibrations reverberating through the entire aircraft. Captain Taylor called for an engine failure drill, with Flight Engineer Thomas Hicks immediately commencing the ordered engine failure checklist. Check Captain Geoffrey Moss reached for the switch to cancel the undercarriage warning horn, the same moment, First Officer Francis Kirkland inadvertently cancelled the fire bell. Hicks reached for, but didn't pull, the engine fire shut-off handle.
Moss, observing the fire, exclaimed "Bloody hell! The wing's on fire!”
At 15;29, a Mayday was broadcast.
In the tower, air traffic controller John Davis, was distracted by what he initially thought was the sun reflecting off the aircraft's wing during its initial climb. Davis quickly realized Flight 712 was on fire. He hit the "crash button” sounding the alarm alerting emergency services.
As the crew of Flight 712 were attempting to return to the airport, windows on the port side at the rear of the fuselage were beginning to melt, and at an altitude of 3000 feet over Thorpe, the burning engine separated from the wing, and fell away from the aircraft.
The flight crew were well aware that their aircraft would not last long enough to enable a landing back on 28L. Davis then cleared the aircraft to land on the shorter runway 05R, which was 7,733 feet long. As the airliner struggled to return, ATC was busy clearing other aircraft traffic out of the crippled and burning airliners way…
BOAC Flight 712 successfully touched down on 05R, and with the use of heavy braking and thrust reversing on the outboard engines, the crew were able to bring the aircraft to a full stop. The cabin crew did not wait for the evacuation order, and were already swinging open the emergency exit doors. The flight crew were attempting to complete the fire drill when the port wing exploded. As a result, the fire shut off handles were not pulled, and the booster pumps and electrical supply were left switched on. Due to the incredibly short period of time between the initial Mayday being declared at 15:29 and the aircraft landing at 15:31, there was no time for the emergency services to lay a carpet of foam for fire suppression which was standard practice at the time. The fire spread unchecked.
The cabin crew had commenced the evacuation, even before the aircraft had come to a halt. Both forward galley doors, both rear doors, and the starboard overwing exits were opened allowing Eighteen passengers to escape via the overwing exits before the fire grew too intense to use that route. The forward port galley door escape slide burst into flames before it could be used. Only a single person escaped via the Port slide. An additional 84 passengers escaped via the starboard galley door.
Three of the flight crew managed to escape via the emergency cockpit rope.
The rear starboard door escape slide had twisted on deployment, with Captain Cliff Taylor climbing down to attempt to straighten it, as stewardess Jane Harrison remained at the exit above while assisting the evacuation of the remaining passengers. Six passengers escaped to safety via this route before the slide was punctured and deflated. Flight Officer Harrison pushed out passengers too frightened to jump. Eleven more escaped via this route, and five more escaped via the rear port door before that slide was destroyed.
Barbara Jane Harrison was last seen preparing to jump from the burning aircraft, as according to witnesses "flames and smoke [were] licking around her face" Just as she would have leaped to her safety, she hesitated, and with complete disregard for her own personal safety, she turned back into the cabin and disappeared as it became enshrouded in smoke and flame…seconds later a large explosion erupted from the aircraft, consuming the cabin, where Barbara Jane Harrison was reportedly attempting to save a disabled passenger and an 8 year old girl.
Barbara Jane Harrison was never seen alive again...
Her body was found with four other passangers near the rear exit. All had died from asphyxia.
Anthony Crosland (President of the Board of Trade and the minister responsible for civil aviation) later wrote of Harrison's "lonely and courageous action" and "devotion to duty, in the highest traditions of her calling".
In August 1969 Harrison became the only woman to ever receive the George Cross in peacetime. Jane Harrison was also its youngest female recipient.
Barbara Jane Harrison’s George Cross citation
No. 2 engine of B.O.A.C. Boeing 707 G-ARWE caught fire and subsequently fell from the aircraft, leaving a fierce fire burning at No. 2 engine position. About two and a half minutes later the aircraft made an emergency landing at the airport and the fire on the port wing intensified. Miss Harrison was one of the stewardesses in this aircraft and the duties assigned to her in an emergency were to help the steward at the aft station to open the appropriate rear door and inflate the escape chute and then to assist the passengers at the rear of the aircraft to leave in an orderly manner. When the aircraft landed, Miss Harrison and the steward concerned opened the rear galley door and inflated the chute, which unfortunately became twisted on the way down so that the steward had to climb down it to straighten it before it could be used. Once out of the aircraft he was unable to return; hence Miss Harrison was left alone to the task of shepherding passengers to the rear door and helping them out of the aircraft. She encouraged some passengers to jump from the machine and pushed out others.