A blaze on board a packed jet forced an emergency landing at Gatwick yesterday. The 299 passengers and 13 crew on board were evacuated using escape slides in a drama that closed the airport for several hours. Fifteen required hospital attention, many with suspected broken bones. Scores of other flights had to be suspended, delaying thousands of passengers.
The Airbus A330 turned back just 15 minutes into its flight to Orlando in Florida as smoke began to fill the cabin. Some passengers accused the staff of panicking as the aircraft landed and its emergency chutes were deployed. Liam Moore, a passenger, said everybody was ‘really shaken up’.
‘Everything seemed fine,’ he said. ‘Then the pilot came on the tannoy just a few minutes into the flight and said we would have to do an emergency landing. It all happened so quickly. We landed and suddenly all the doors flung open and the emergency slides were inflated.
‘We then had to slide down the chutes, some people got cuts and grazes from the slide.
‘Police cars were flying up the runway. There were four fire engines, paramedics, a helicopter.’
Fire crews used powerful extinguishers to douse the flames as the Airbus stood on the runway.
All flights at Gatwick were suspended, leaving thousands stranded and facing an afternoon of delays. The airport had been due to deal with 600 flights during the day.
Passenger Tom Alridge said one of the cabin crew panicked after the plane touched down: ‘She was screaming like a banshee – “Get off, get off” – she was literally pushing people down the chute,’ he said.
‘Someone has a broken ankle, another guy hit his head when he went down the chute.’
Another passenger, Mark Bell, from Bracknell, told the BBC: ‘I knew something was wrong when we took off. The plane was really wobbly.
‘The cabin crew made things worse. They were all really panicked. We weren’t told anything other than we had to go back to Gatwick and make an emergency landing.
‘We circled the airport twice before the landing. We were told to evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.”
The closure is the second to hit Gatwick in three days.
On Friday, all outbound flights were briefly suspended after a hot air balloon drifted into the flight path.
A Gatwick spokesman said: ‘A Virgin A330 left Gatwick at 11.48am bound for Orlando but returned to make an emergency landing at 12.30 due to reports of a technical issue.’
The spokesman said passengers were looked after at a reception area. Last night the airport was open again and flights were expected to be back on schedule today.
Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the flight was ‘not far out of London when the technical alarms went off on the flight deck’.
He said some passengers had gone home and others were travelling today. He promised an investigation into the incident.
She said passengers involved were being looked after in a specially set-up reception area at the airport.
Virgin Atlantic’s president, Sir Richard Branson, tweeted: ‘Very sorry to all passengers on board VS27.
‘The staff @virginatlantic are doing everything they can to look after everybody. More info soon.’
Virgin Atlantic confirmed that flight VS27 from Gatwick to Orlando had made an emergency u-turn to its home airport and been evacuated adding in a statement: ‘Due to a technical problem, the captain decided as a precautionary measure to immediately evacuate the aircraft.
‘Virgin Atlantic can confirm that all the passengers and crew have now safely disembarked. We can confirm that there have been four minor injuries.
‘Our teams at Gatwick are now offering full support, looking after our passengers and assisting with their immediate requirements.’
It added: ‘Virgin Atlantic is working closely with the authorities to establish the cause of this incident. The safety and welfare of our crew and passengers is Virgin Atlantic’s top priority.’
But the incident caused knock-on delays to other airlines operating in and out of Gatwick- with some incoming flights diverted, and others landing at Stansted Airport in Essex instead.
Gatwick operated a reduced service and warned passengers could expect knock-on disruptions and delays.
British Airways warned customers: ‘Flight delays, diversions and cancellations are expected so if you are due to travel to or from London Gatwick, please check the status of your flight before leaving for the airport.’
And easyJet’s website said its flights were experiencing ‘signification disruption’ and recommended passengers check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport.
Eyewitness Lorna Willson, 23, who works in a building that overlooks the runway, said she saw the immediate aftermath of the landing.
She said: ‘I was just eating my lunch and I noticed the plane – they usually take off quite quickly but this one didn’t go anywhere.
‘Then I realised all the chutes were out and there were lots of fire engines and police. I think the passengers had been taken off, but you could see a few stewardesses. There was quite a lot of emergency services there.’
An airport staff member said: ‘The plane is waiting on the runway. Police officers and other vehicles are surrounding it. It looks pretty serious, but the airport is dealing with it well. They are not letting anyone else through security at the moment.
‘It looks like the height of summer here. They have made announcements that all flights are suspended until 3pm and there is a crowd scene.’
The closure is the second to hit Gatwick in three days. Last Friday, all outbound flights were briefly suspended after a hot air balloon drifted into the flight path.
It is the first incident involving a Virgin flight since 2008, when another passenger jet with 320 passengers was forced to turn back to Gatwick Airport less than an hour into its journey because of a technical problem. The plane to Barbados returned to Gatwick to be met by fire crews after the Boeing 747 circled over Gatwick to burn off fuel before landing.
A Korean Airways jumbo jet made an emergency landing at Heathrow airport in January after a mayday call on a transatlantic flight.
The Boeing cargo plane carrying cattle from Chicago to Brussels issued the call over the Bristol Channel when a fire warning light flashed on in the cockpit, before diverting to Heathrow for an emergency landing.
By RAY MASSEY