‘We are evacuating on the runway’: Pilot keeps his cool as jetliner catches fire

As flames exploded from a speeding, fully fuelled British Airways jet on the runway, hotel guests in the adjacent strip would have had ringside seats as telltale black smoke began billowing out of McCurran International Airport.

“Everyone ran to the windows and people were standing on their chairs, looking out, holding their breath with their hands over their mouths,” said Reggie Bügmüncher, a Philadelphia sideshow performer who witnessed the dramatic fire Tuesday afternoon from an airport gate.

But inside the flaming 275-seat aircraft, British Airways pilot Chris Henkey coolly powered down the airliner and informed the control tower his command was now on fire.

“Mayday, mayday … request fire services,” says a calm British voice amid the hectic Las Vegas airport radio chatter.

Eric Hays via APEric Hays via APIn this photo taken from the view of a plane window, smoke billows out from a plane that caught fire at McCarren International Airport, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Thirty seconds later, as fire trucks scrambled to the blaze, the unruffled voice added that passengers were now beginning to leave the burning plane.

“We are evacuating on the runway,” he said. “We have a fire, repeat, we are evacuating.”

For Henkey, a 63-year-old former pub landlord who’s been flying jets since the 1970s, this was supposed to be one of his last flights before retirement.

On Friday, the veteran captain was to pilot his last airliner to Barbados where he and fiancée Lenka Nevlona, 40, were hoping to join his 26-year-old daughter.

The B777-200 was doing 90 kilometres per hour and almost airborne when it was struck by what accident specialists are now calling a “catastrophic failure of engine.” Under different circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine many of those on board might never have left Sin City alive.

But Henkey and his crew pulled off a “textbook emergency evacuation,” said aviation expert Julian Bray. Jim McAuslin, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, praised his calm reaction.

Although the fire raged right outside onethe plane’s emergency exits, the aircraft’s 13-strong crew were able to quickly evacuate all 159 passengers, the only casualties being 14 with minor injuries.

Ultimately, the toll of an exploding airline engine would be cuts, bruises, burns and scrapes from the evacuation slide; two people who complained of smoke inhalation.

AP Photo/John LocherAP Photo/John LocherCasinos along the Las Vegas Strip can be seen behind a plane that caught fire at McCarren International Airport, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Las Vegas. An engine on the British Airways plane caught fire before takeoff.

“We had a matter of seconds before it could have escalated into something very serious,” Dominic Worthington, a Briton who was on the plane, told CBS News.

Despite his steely calm on the radio, Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg, who was also on the flight, said “all the colour had drained” from the pilot’s face as he described to passengers the explosion that had brought their London flight to a screeching halt.

Bruce Garner, 68, a former Boeing 777 pilot, said Henkey likely went into a trancelike “automatic mode” in the seconds after disaster struck.

“There wouldn’t have been any panic. All pilots are trained on exactly what to do,” he said.

“I am very proud of the cabin crew and relieved everyone is OK,” Henkey told The Daily Telegraph.

Henkey’s ex-wife Mamie, a former cabin crew member, was more explicit when reached by a British reporter. “He did a bloody good job,” she said.

For Henkey’s daughter Charley, the news came in the form of a text.

“I was just heading out for dinner with my best friend when I got a text from dad saying there had been a massive explosion on the plane but that he was OK,” she told the U.K’s Reading Chronicle.

By the time more than 50 firefighters began attacking the blazing engine, passengers were already walking dazedly across the tarmac back to the gate. Some of them — in a clear breach of every rule of aircraft evacuation — could even be seen towing their carry-on luggage.

Piush Patel / @illmaticpPiush Patel / @illmaticpPolice on the runway in Montreal after the British Airways flight was forced to land.

From Henkey’s first mayday to the evacuation to the fire being put out at 4:18 p.m. local time, only five minutes had elapsed.

As the dramatic scene played out, passengers on taxiing aircraft got a front-row seat.

“Just landed in Vegas to see this … plane on fire on the Tarmac … people still onboard and running off!” tweeted David Somers against a photo of the smoke-engulfed aircraft.

Bradley Hampton, another passenger on a nearby aircraft, said, “looking out of the left hand side we could see left engine was on fire.

“We didn’t know there were people on the plane, then suddenly the doors opened and the slides inflated.”

As shocked passengers took to social media to describe their brush with fiery death, some seemed just as understated as their captain.

“Just got evacuated from our flight … plane caught fire some how omg,” wrote one.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are travelling to Las Vegas from Washington, agency spokesman Eric Weiss said.

Preliminary reports usually are issued within about a week, while a complete investigation in unusual or precedent-setting cases can take more than a year.

“We’re calling it an engine fire,” said Weiss.

National Post, with files from The Telegraph and The Associated Press

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