Plane narrowly avoided massive catastrophe at Belfast International

Image from the report, compiled using Google images, showing the flight path of the aircraft over farms and roads. The writing in the top right indicates the area where the light was hit.
Image from the report, compiled using Google images, showing the flight path of the aircraft over farms and roads. The writing in the top right indicates the area where the light was hit.

If a bungled plane take-off had unfolded just slightly differently then the result could have been “multiple fatalities”, investigators have said.

The Boeing 737, with 185 people (including crew) on board, collided with a light as it left Belfast International Airport just after 3.30pm on Friday, July 21 this year, bound for Corfu.

On Wednesday, accident investigators published their findings into exactly what happened and how.

The report, issued by the UK government’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), said “the aircraft tyres struck a runway approach light”, which stood just 13 inches high (35cm), when it was already a full 95ft beyond the end of the runway (29m).

The available runway at the plane’s disposal had been just under 1.7 miles (2.7km).

Investigators said the thrust setting of the aircraft had been “significantly below that required for the conditions of the day”, and that witnesses noted that it “took a significant time to lift off before climbing at a very shallow angle”.

It said that the only credible reason for this was an error in entering data in the flight computer.

The report states: “When informed of this event, the AAIB considered the worst credible outcome, had the event escalated... It was considered that, in slightly different circumstances, this event could have resulted in the loss of the aircraft with multiple fatalities.”

The changes in circumstances which it suggested would have caused this included a slightly shorter runway, obstacles or terrain in the takeoff path, or engine failure.

The report said air traffic control at the airport reported the incident, but not using the 24-hour hotline.

This had meant that by the time investigators looked into it about two-and-a-half days later, some of the data they could have examined was not available.

The craft was Canadian-registered, had a 38-year-old Canadian commander, and is described only as being used by an unnamed UK tour operator.