As air accidents go, this one is nearly perfect. A Boeing 777 falls out of the air, not in itself a good thing, but chooses to do so on just about the only patch of soft ground in London surrounded by aviation-trained fire crews, accident investigators and nice people in uniform proffering hot tea. Everyone on board escapes serious hurt and walks – or at least hobbles – to safety, BA get to parade a Hollywood-perfect crew in front of the world's media, and a few days later the wreckage is quietly tidied away.
There are just a couple of points outstanding, one human, one technical. The human side is easy: by all accounts, the crew really do deserve those medals the size of frying pans. There's an old RAF saying – if it looks like you're due a prang, select the softest and cheapest object in the landscape and endeavour to strike it as gently and slowly as possible. The lawn in front of Runway 27L qualifies perfectly, and the pilot settled the aircraft down from a few feet up by stalling it. He did this after making all the right decisions and exhibiting exemplary flying skills in a situation thought impossible and thus never trained for – with no time for any sort of planning nor margin for error.
The technical side is a bit more pressing. By now, the Air Accidents Inquiry Board (AAIB) has determined that both engines went on strike, sulking at flight idle when asked for more power, Scotty. They're not supposed to do that, you know. Losing one is unfortunate, two begins to look like carelessness, but there's so much duplication in a modern two-engined passenger jet that a common cause is very hard to find. Fuel contamination, icing, pilot error, downdrafts and bird strikes have all been effectively ruled out – at least by the best informed guesswork; the AAIB may know more but it's not saying yet.
And as Sherlock Holmes said, with bad logic but good rhetoric, once you've ruled out the probable whatever's left, however improbable, is the cause. That means that the armchair engineers, conspiracy theorists and axe-grinders are coming out to play – none more so than with the hertzian monsters who live in the Land of Electronic Smog.
An early example of this – expect many, many more – comes from one Nina Anderson, author of the spine-chilling tome 'Worse Than Global Warming – Wave Technology': "According to Anderson, wireless technology is rampant and the unseen hazards from this technology could influence our health, behaviour and maybe aircraft controls."
Yeah, and gremlins on the wing drove the Captain mad.
Which is not to say that radio frequency interference might not be a factor. I think it's very unlikely, but there is anecdotal evidence and some test results that suggest under exceptional conditions that prove difficult or impossible to replicate, avionics can be affected by personal mobile equipment.
Given the phase of the flight when the accident happened, the primary suspect for the source of any such interference has to be mobile phone handsets, illicitly turned on by business travellers desperate to make contact after a long flight and connecting with base stations as they finally come within range.
And if this is the case -- again, it's a huge if -- there'll be plenty of evidence in the logs of the base stations themselves. The mobile phone operators will have access to the details of which handsets made contact with what base stations when, and the signature of someone connecting out of the sky in the approach to Heathrow will be distinctive enough that pattern-matching searches should produce a list of suspects with little effort. It may be worth looking at this sort of information in general, to work out how often it happens. Then, by matching the handset owner records with the flight manifest, the accident investigators can get the actual equipment used and do further testing.
That's what solves cases like this; good old fashioned sleuthing rather than calling up invisible mysteries and tying them to weird health scares. And in the AAIB, we have some very good old fashioned sleuths dealing with one of the best-instrumented airframes in the world, with all the evidence, physical, electronic and human, intact and available. You couldn't hope for a better accident.
Worse than global warming. Sheesh.