Captain Moody’s wisdom: ‘the aeroplane might break any minute’

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(L to R) Flight Engineer Barry Townley-Freeman, Captain Eric Moody and First Officer Roger Greaves. Image courtesy Eric Moody.
(L to R) Flight Engineer Barry Townley-Freeman, Captain Eric Moody and First Officer Roger Greaves. Image courtesy Eric Moody.

Airmanship may sound old school but former British Airways captain Eric Moody argues it is just as important now as it was when he and his crew struggled to restart all 4 engines on his Boeing 747-200 in 1982.

The City of Edinburgh had been cruising at 37,000 feet over the ocean on a June night when the number 4 engine, a Rolls-Royce RB- 211, started surging and flamed out. The second engine failed 30 seconds later and the other two shortly afterwards.

Moody, first officer Roger Greaves and flight engineer Barry Townley-Freeman had no idea what had caused the unprecedented and statistically improbable multiple failure.

All they knew was that the jumbo jet, which was en route to Perth from Kuala Lumpur as part of a London-Auckland trip, had become a glider.

The first sign that something untoward was happening had been unusually intense St Elmo’s fire playing across the windscreen accompanied by an acrid smoke.

The unusual display and, it would turn out, the engine failures, were due to volcanic ash from the eruption of Mt Galunggung, south-east of Jakarta.

But there was no sign of that on the 747’s weather radar, although turning on the landing lights gave the impression of flying through clouds.

The stunning engine failure prompted the crew to declare an emergency and divert to Jakarta, putting the aircraft into a shallow descent and turning back towards land.

They calculated the giant Boeing could glide for less than 25 minutes from 37,000 feet and there was a problem with high mountains between the aircraft and Jakarta.

This raised the possibility BA9 might have to attempt an ocean ditching if the engines could not be restarted by 12,000 feet.

Moody and his crew began trying to restart the engines, even though the number 4 engine was technically not allowed.

There are times, he tells Flight Safety Australia, that pilots need to work outside the rules and this was one of them.

‘There was no book for us,’ he says from his home in England. ‘We did things that were outside the book. And If I’d tried to do things by the book, I don’t know whether we’d still be here.’

With cabin pressure dropping, the flight crew needs to get on oxygen but the first officer’s mask has problems and there is a risk he might succumb to hypoxia.

Moody decides on an emergency descent rather than lose a valuable crew member but Greaves manages to fix the mask and the crew reduces the descent rate as it passes through 20,000 feet.

It’s about this time Moody makes one of aviation’s most understated and famous passenger announcements: ‘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 going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.’

At around 12,000 feet, the number 4 engine restarted and Moody realised he could at least level off. By that time, the jet had been gliding for 13 minutes without engines with the crew working hard to restart them.

It was, says Moody, a classic case of airmanship and cooperation between the flight crew.

‘There was plenty of time to think and there were three of us,’ Moody says. ‘You just need the ability to think calmly through. But the flight engineer summed it up at the time when he said: “That was like thinking through treacle”.’

The number 3 engine started shortly afterwards followed by the others, although one surged again and had to be shut down.

This allowed the 747 to climb but Moody says there was no sense of elation. He just wanted to get the plane on the ground.

Yet there was still drama to come.

The windscreen had been effectively sandblasted by the ash and, while the instruments on the aircraft were working, that wasn’t true of the instrument landing system (ILS) in Jakarta. The crew worked together to create a virtual glideslope using the localiser and distance measuring equipment.

‘We could find the centreline of the runway but I had no glideslope,’ he said. ‘We did it through a very good bit of crew cooperation. That pleased me more than anything.

‘We really worked well as a team but that gets the least amount of attention.’

It wasn’t until sometime after landing that the crew discovered volcanic ash was the cause of the engine failures.

Moody says a strong grounding in airmanship – skills he and the crew had gained over the years through experience and by watching others – helped them survive the ordeal.

Moody was just 3 years old when he expressed a desire to be fighter pilot after watching World War II dogfights over the Southampton docks.

That changed 5 years later when he visited BOAC flying boat captains with his father and heard the stories about their lives.

He attended a school near Winchester that had an RAF cadet force and, importantly, learnt to fly a glider at 16. He obtained his private pilot licence at 17 —flying Hornet Moths, Tiger Moths and Chipmunks — and from there it was off to the BOAC training college at Hamble.

Hamble was strong on airmanship and those early lessons stuck with Moody throughout his career. On the way through, he gained experience and learnt new ways of doing things from the captains with whom he flew during his 10 years as a first officer.

He says pilots of his era expected things to go wrong and thought ahead about what they would do when that happened.

‘I was always brought up to expect the aeroplane might break any minute,’’ he adds. ‘It’s where you come from.’

He strongly believes pilots should learn to think beyond the process of following checklists and procedures by rote.

‘We had a really good team there when it came to experience and airmanship,’’ he says of BA9.

‘I think airmanship is at the bottom of it all. And that’s something that’s not changed at all. It’s just one of those things that you gain or you learn from other people and experience.’

1 COMMENT

  1. A fascinating picture of airmanship and teamwork. Airmanship is as important as technical flying skills but harder to teach.

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