PASSENGERS escaped serious injury today after a British Airways plane crash landed at the UK's biggest airport.
Just six of the 136 passengers on board the Boeing 777 needed hospital treatment despite the plane coming down short of the southern runway at Heathrow airport and skidding across the grass.
With the undercarriage wrecked and with two giant wheel units being ripped off, passengers were safely evacuated from the plane – flight BA038 which had flown in from Beijing.
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One passenger spoke of the plane coming in at a "funny angle" and "belly-flopping" on to the grass, with evacuation down the ramps being conducted very quickly.
Another passenger said there had been "no indication that we were going to have a bad landing" while another person on board said the captain had looked "very pale" after the landing at about 12.40pm.
One airport worker said the captain, who BA said had been flying with the airline for nearly 20 years, had told him that he had lost all power as he came in to land. BA could not comment on this.
The southern runway at Heathrow was closed but flights were able to take off and land on the northern runway.
One of the planes delayed by the incident was a British Airways Boeing 747 which was taking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Beijing for an official visit. The Boeing 777 had crashed about 1,000 metres from Mr Brown's plane.
Mr Brown was able to take off later in the day.
The incident will now be looked at by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) who will question all those involved and also check the plane's "black box" flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
The flight had left Beijing at 9.50am local time and had been due to land at Heathrow at 1pm UK time.
The plane came down at 12.42pm just yards from a busy perimeter road.
Tonight it remained strewn across the runway – the damage to the aircraft only serving to emphasise how fortunate passengers and crew had been to escape major injury.
BA chief executive Willie Walsh said: "Regrettably one of our aircraft has been involved in an incident today at Heathrow. Our flight and cabin crew did a magnificent job and safely evacuated all of the 136 passengers.
"There were three minor injuries among our customers.
"The captain of the aircraft is one of our most experienced and has been flying with us for nearly 20 years. Our crew are trained to deal with these situations.
"An investigation is being conducted by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch so it would be inappropriate to speculate about the likely cause of this incident.
"I would also like to praise the fire, ambulance and police services."
One passenger, Jerome Ensinck, said he thought the flight had simply suffered a particularly hard landing.
He went on: "There was no indication that we were going to have a bad landing. When we hit the ground it was extremely rough, but I've had rough landings before and I thought 'This is the roughest I've had'.
"Then the emergency exits were opened and we were all told we should go through as quickly as possible, and the moment I was away from the plane I started to realise that the undercarriage was away, and we had missed the runway.
"I feel lucky at the moment, but I think now I realise I've had a close call. If we had hit the runway, it would have been worse."
Mr Ensinck praised the cabin crew for their professionalism during the emergency, and described the evacuation as "calm and relaxed".
Another passenger, Paul Venter, said: "We had a good flight, we came in to land, I could hear the undercarriage come out and the next moment the plane just dropped," he said.
"The wheels came out and went for touchdown, and the next moment we just dropped. I couldn't tell you how far. When everything came to a standstill, I looked out of the window and the undercarriage was gone and the plane was on its belly.
"I didn't speak to the pilot, but I saw him, and he looked very pale, but there was no communication in the cabin."
Other eyewitnesses spoke of seeing the plane coming in at a very low level and banking heavily. One said it was "so low you would think you could lean out the window and touch it".
The evacuated passengers were taken to a reception centre at the airport. Heathrow Airport's southern runway was closed for a time before reopening, but the northern runway operated throughout. Some arriving aircraft were being diverted to other airports.
BA has 43 Boeing 777s. The plane in today's incident was a 777-200ER and had been manufactured in 2001 and had Rolls-Royce engines. Its last routine maintenance check was in December 2007.