Ash cloud terror still haunts passengers
Passengers Arthur and Shirley Ewen with Captain Eric Moody. Picture: Guy Magowan/The West Australian

"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 under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."

The chilling address delivered calmly by Capt. Eric Moody 30 years ago this week has become the greatest airline passenger announcement of all time.

For the 263 passengers and crew aboard flight BA9, a British Airways 747 flying through a moonless night from Kuala Lumpur to Perth on June 24, 1982, death was only a matter of time.

Initially, they were in awe of the strange, static electrical light show outside but that quickly turned to terror as the jet's four engines glowed white, spurted flames and halted. It was 9.43pm.

"Horrific," is how passenger Arthur Ewen, of Scarborough, describes the feeling. "It still affects me and Shirley today. The cabin was quiet, people were praying. We just hugged and held hands."

The 747 had blundered into the ash cloud from the sudden eruption of Mt Galunggung, 110km south of Jakarta.

The passengers and crew faced an agonising 42 minutes before the 747 touched down in Jakarta.

Capt. Moody was on his way to the toilet.

"Suddenly I was summoned back to the cockpit," he told Australian Aviation. "On the way back, I noticed puffs of smoke billowing out of the floor vents and there was an acrid smell or ionized electrical smell."

When Capt. Moody entered the flight deck, he saw the most intense display of St Elmo's fire - a blue-glowing form of atmospheric electricity - dancing across the windshield.

Senior First Officer Richard Greaves and Senior Engineer Barry Townley-Freeman were already taking action.

"Roger pointed out the glow from the engines and what could only be described as tracer bullets streaming towards the cockpit," Capt. Moody said.

What worried Capt. Moody - and terrified the passengers - was the smoke billowing out of the air-conditioning system.

The air was then punctuated by a chilling call from the engineer: "Engine failure number four."

Within seconds the problem became worse. "Engine failure number two, three's gone . . . they've all gone."

The crew was faced with a bewildering array of confusing dials and amber caution lights. They noticed a slowing of airspeed and put the 747 into a slow descent.

Capt. Moody instructed FO Greaves to put out a mayday call: "Jakarta, Jakarta, mayday, mayday, Speedbird 9. We've lost all four engines."

But it took some time for the full gravity of the message to get through as the static around the 747 was interfering with radio transmissions. "We had absolutely no idea what had happened," Capt. Moody said. "We had to think outside the box - it was so confusing."

At 26,000ft, the cabin pressure warning sounded and the crew donned their masks. But the FO's mask fell apart in his hands, forcing Capt. Moody into an emergency descent.

Mr Ewen remembers the passengers were numb with fear, which turned to horror as repeated failed attempts to restart the engines sent fuel spewing out the back, which was then ignited by the St Elmo's fire dancing over and around the wings.

As the 747 reached 14,000ft, Capt. Moody said he started to consider a water landing. "I think we had another 10 minutes of glide left. My pondering was broken by the jubilation of the rest of the crew as number four started."

Within 90 seconds the other three engines had come back to life.

Speedbird 9 was cleared to Jakarta but there was a complication Capt. Moody recounts.

"We had great difficulty picking up the lights and what we didn't realise is that the front windows were almost opaque from the ash."

The landing - despite many problems - was smooth and was greeted with "thunderous applause and cheers from the passengers", Mr Ewen said.

Reflecting on the incredible events Capt. Moody mused: "When I learnt to fly in the 50s, flying was dangerous and sex was safe.

"When I retired in the 90s, that had gone the other way around!"

The West Australian

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