The details of the British Airways 747 near-accident in South Africa are out, and man, was that scary for the pilots. They did a great job of keeping that bad boy in the air, but it could have ended very differently. Here’s what happened.

On May 11, 2009, BA flight 56 prepared for its evening departure to London/Heathrow. Afternoon rain had cleared out and it was a clear evening with light northerly winds and temps in the mid-50s (something like -358 degrees Celsius, I’m told). Boeing 747 G-BYGA was ready to bring 265 passengers and 18 crew members back to the UK, so it was about 80 percent full. It probably looked a lot like this one (though this was in Cape Town, not Jo’burg):

Photo via Flickr user Sara&Joachim

They buttoned up and headed for the runway. Engines spooled up as usual and they started rocketing to the north on runway 3L for the long flight home. When the airplane hit 167 kts, just about the time for it to rotate, all hell broke loose. Somehow, due to a technical fault, the airplane showed that thrust reversers had been deployed. Thrust reversers deflect the air within the engine to push it forward instead of backward. This is generally only a good idea when you want to stop the airplane, so it happens with wheels on the ground during the landing rollout.

Here’s what they look like on a Lufthansa 747:

Photo by Flickr user wbaiv

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  • Cranky Flier

    My name is Brett, and I’m an airline dork. I’ve had the bug since I was young. As a kid, I never missed a chance to go to LAX a…

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