A British Airways jumbo jet carrying 202 passengers and crew sliced into an office building at Johannesburg’s main airport after following the wrong taxiway prior to takeoff for London, injuring four people on the ground.
The Boeing Co. (BA) 747-400, with a wingspan of 211 feet (64 meters), had been instructed to use taxiway B but followed the narrower taxiway M, causing a wing to strike the offices, where the injuries were caused by debris from the building, South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority said. Photos taken by passengers showed the wing embedded into the second floor of the building, having ripped through the side for several meters.
“This wasn’t just a case of the wing grazing the building, this was a huge incursion,” said Robert Mann, a consultant who formerly ran fleet management at American Airlines and who describes London-Johannesburg as a “senior route” most likely staffed by experienced cockpit crews.
A kerosene spill from the fully fueled jumbo, which would have had thousands of gallons of propellant in its wings, was contained by the airport fire services, and no one aboard was hurt, the authority said. The 747 has been removed from the office block and its flight recorders recovered for analysis.
Mann said that pilots are issued with diagrams against which to map their progress when taxiing, and that even when instructed to take a particular route to the runway there is an assumption of “situational awareness” requiring them to recognize when their plane risks hitting another object.
Paul Hayes, head of safety at U.K. aviation consultancy Ascend, said an airliner hits a building once every few years on average, making such incidents less common than plane-to-plane clips, which can typically happen several times annually.
“It might be that someone has taken a wrong turning, or missed a turning, or followed the wrong taxiway line,” Hayes said of wing clips, adding that “if there is building work and temporary markings, they might not give sufficient clearance.”
The 185 passengers on the BA plane escaped unharmed and were evacuated out of door no. 5, the South African CAA said.
The people hurt in the incident at Johannesburg’s’s O.R. Tambo airport, located 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of South Africa’s commercial capital, were cabin-cleaning staff employed by Bidvest Group Ltd. (BVT) and based at the damaged offices.
Bob Gurr, director of sales and marketing at the group’s BidAir Services unit, which has 1,900 ground-handling employees at the airport, said by e-mail that the four were “slightly injured” and later discharged from hospital following treatment. The company is continuing to work from its other facilities.
The impact happened at about 10:40 p.m. local time at a hub that ranks as Africa’s busiest, handling 18.6 million passengers and almost 200,000 plane movements in the year ended March 31, according to the annual report of state-owned Airports Company South Africa.
British Airways, owned by International Consolidated Airlines Group SA (IAG), provided hotel rooms for its stranded customers and is arranging new flights, the London-based carrier said in a statement, adding that its twice daily timetable to Johannesburg won’t be affected.
The highest profile wing-clip incident of recent years came at the 2011 Paris Air Show, when an Airbus SAS A380 superjumbo with a 262-foot wingspan grazed an airport building at the Le Bourget airfield and had to be sent home for repairs.
One of the most spectacular incidents also occurred in 2011, when another A380, operated by Air France (AF), collided with a Delta Air Lines Inc. Bombardier Inc. CRJ700 while taxiing at New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport.
The superjumbo wing clipped the smaller commuter jet’s tail, whipping it around before the Airbus moved clear. None of the 520 people on the A380 or 66 on the Delta flight was hurt.
The deadliest accident in aviation history, which killed 583 on the island of Tenerife in 1977, also involved taxiing errors after diverted aircraft crowding the apron forced planes to taxi up the runway in thick fog before departing.
A series of miscommunication caused a 747 operated by KLM to attempt takeoff while a second Pan Am jumbo was taxiing up the same strip. The collision destroyed both aircraft, killing all 248 on the Dutch flight and 335 of the 396 on the U.S. jet.
After the Johannesburg impact, Harriet Tolputt, head of media for development charity Oxfam, who was on the plane, posted a photo showing the wing protruding beyond the perimeter fence and stuck in the building. She said on Twitter that no one was injured, “only the pilot’s pride.”
Three investigators from the South African CAA were on scene to observe the recovery of the aircraft and the removal of its flight recorders, the authority said.
British Airways said the 747 was later moved away from the building. The carrier declined to comment on what caused the jet to be wrongly positioned and said it has started its own investigation and will assist with the safety inquiry.
While BA is drawing down its 747 fleet as it takes delivery of newer models, the plane involved was not one slated for withdrawal and returned from a major maintenance check in Cardiff, Wales, only in September, according to a posting on “The BA Source” website.