Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten crash, but a story worth telling about the only cabin crewmember—and the only woman in peacetime—to be awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian medal for bravery.
On 8 April 1968, a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Boeing 707 took off from London Heathrow bound ultimately for Sydney. Within seconds there was an explosion—a fire in the No. 2 engine. The aircraft made an immediate left turn, and was cleared to land on another, shorter runway. It touched down after three minutes and 32 seconds, with its left-side fuselage windows melting.
The citation for crew member Jane Harrison’s George Cross describes what happened next:
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. With flames and explosions all around her and escape from the tail of the machine impossible, she directed her passengers to another exit while she remained at her post.
Harrison was last seen going back into the aisle to look for more passengers. Her body was found with four passengers, including a disabled woman, near the rear door. All had been killed by asphyxiation. She was 22, and had worked as cabin crew for just under two years.
The crash of BOAC flight 712 has many human factors lessons that are applicable even now, with vastly different technology—how the controller proactively directed go-arounds for aircraft approaching the nearby runway; how confusion between the check captain and the flight crew led to the fire shut-off handle not being pulled, prolonging the inferno; and, how the real job of cabin crew is not serving tea, coffee and pleasantries, but saving lives. Author Susan Ottaway wrote a biography of Jane Harrison, Fire over Heathrow, in 2008. Part of the book can be viewed on Google Books.