Pilot's Possible Tragic Tale Gets Diverted

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A British Airlines flight 30 years ago flew through a cloud of volcanic ash off the coast of Indonesia. The Boeing 747's engines caught on fire and stopped, causing the plane to go down. With nerves of steel, the captain, Eric Moody, miraculously landed the plane. Host Scott Simon talks to the retired pilot about the current cloud of volcanic ash drifting across Europe, and how airlines will have to cope.


As the volcano in Iceland continues to spew ash, flights are grounded across large areas of Europe. And if you wonder why such caution is needed, you can ask retired British Airways Captain Eric Moody. In 1982, Captain Moody was flying near Jakarta, Indonesia when volcanic ash caused all four engines on his Boeing 747 to fail. But Captain Moody landed his airplane. He joins us now from Camberley, England.

Captain Moody, thanks for being with us.

Mr. ERIC MOODY (Retired British Airways Pilot): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: So your plane's going down. Oxygen bags are deployed. What do you do?

Mr. MOODY: Gosh, we'd been trying to start the engines then probably like 10 minutes or so. And we actually glided the airplane before the engines started for 14 or 15 minutes.

But when the oxygen masks came down, it was just a reminder that we had some passengers on board and I had to make a passenger address. And I found that difficult because the internal telephone system wasn't working. But that was the least of my worries, I have to say.

SIMON: How did you save your airplane?

Mr. MOODY: How did I save it?

SIMON: Yes, sir.

Mr. MOODY: Well, it was sheer bloody-mindedness and persistence. We just kept trying. It wasn't me any more than the other two on the flight deck. It was the first officer, co-pilot, it was - and the flight engineer. And they were working equally as hard as me. Although I was actually flying - hand flying the airplane.

SIMON: I mean, the engines were choking with volcanic ash, right?

Mr. MOODY: Yeah, they were. They'd stopped back up at 37,000 feet.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MOODY: And they weren't starting. In BOAC before, British Airways as it was then, we had practiced four engine failures for years and years in the simulator, always on the 747 had we practiced them.

But when it happened in reality it was nothing like the simulator. Because A) we didn't know what had happened. We had no idea we were in a volcanic ash cloud. It was a dark - really, really dark night, no moon. And we were quite confused and we weren't believing what was happening.

So we glided 25,000 feet. We traveled 80 nautical miles forward, and 15,000 feet or so. We must've come out of the ash cloud. We got two or three thousand feet of clear air. And we got to 13,000 feet and one engine started. And we had to wait another minute and 20 seconds; another one started up very slowly, as they'd run down. And then 30 seconds later the other two started up. We were down at 12,000 feet then. And I hand flew the airplane down. And about 100 over the runway I sank back into the seat and said, well, that's it, lads. And the airplane actually landed itself. It kissed the earth and we were on the ground safely.

SIMON: I bet you kissed the earth.

Mr. MOODY: No. I don't - I'm not that demonstrative, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So when did you find out that it was - you'd run into a volcano?

Mr. MOODY: We'll, we didnt find out for sure until two days later, which was quite a worrying period because pilots always think that they're going to get the blame for whatever happens in an airplane.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MOODY: I mean youre the first person at the scene of an accident and youre the first person to get the blame for an accident. And there's no doubt if we'd gone to the bottom of the Java Trench of Indonesia, which is about, I think, six or seven thousand feet deep, I think to this day I'd have still be getting the blame.

SIMON: This was nearly three decades ago.

Mr. MOODY: (Unintelligible) yes.

SIMON: Are airliners better equipped to handle a volcano?

Mr. MOODY: No, they're not. There's no airborne ash detector that's marketed. There was a scientist who afterwards, called Fred Prata - P-R-A-T-A - and he developed a volcanic ash detector. Because volcanic ash up where we were is like talcum powder; it's that fine. So aircraft radar won't pick it up because the wavelength of the aircraft radar is too long. So Fred developed this but he couldnt find anybody to put it into production. And quite honestly, it would probably be too heavy to make commercial sense.

SIMON: They are several hundred people that I bet feel they owe their lives to you and your crew.

Mr. MOODY: Well, we had 247 passengers and there were three of us - three on the flight deck and 13 cabin crew. But quite honestly, a pilot flies his feet, and wherever he goes the rest of the airplane follows.

SIMON: Captain Eric Moody, retired, joining us on the line from Camberley, England.

Thanks so much.

Mr. MOODY: Thank you.

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