This Day In History: June 18

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On June 18, 1972, a Trident jetliner crashes after takeoff from Heathrow Airport in London, killing 118 people. The official cause of this accident, which becomes known as the Staines air disaster, remains unknown, but investigations later show that the pilot (who suffered from a heart condition) failed to maintain the recommended airspeed.

As the summer of 1972 approached, there were serious problems facing the air-travel industry. Pilots were threatening to strike any day due to lack of security. Hijackings were becoming more common and pilots were feeling particularly vulnerable since they most often bore the brunt of the violence.

However, on June 18 at Heathrow Airport outside of London, all appeared to be running smoothly. The BEA morning flight to Brussels was full and weather conditions were perfect. The Trident 1 jet took off with no incident but, just after its wheels retracted, it began falling from the sky. The plane split on impact and an intense fireball from the plane’s fuel supply erupted, scattering the fuselage and passengers. Only one of the 118 passengers and crew members on board was pulled from the wreckage alive; he died just hours later.

An inquiry by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch found a speed error had caused the plane to stall and the aircraft was not at a sufficient height for the crew to regain control.

BEA flight 548 remains the deadliest air accident (not involving terrorists) to have taken place in the United Kingdom.