Incident Response

Every now and then, while in our line of duty, we are faced with a crisis. This is the story of Speedbird 38.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. ~ JFK

When dealing with technology; computers malfunction all the time, code always has bugs and users will always falter. Avoiding all those is nearly impossible, but minimizing the detrimental impact is definitely achievable. Its not about if something goes wrong, its always about when.

At work, I go oncall every month, for a week at a time. What that means is, I am the front line of defense, 24/7 for 7 days. I walk around town with my laptop on my back and phone in hand waiting for something to go wrong. As they say, when something can go wrong, it will. And it usually does when you least expect it.

The way you respond to a situation is almost as important as the remedy itself. Nobody expects you to know how to fix everything — that is just impossible. Being in the first line of defense, what is more valuable is communicating clearly what the situation is, identify who can help and delegating the tasks accordingly.

The 3 principles that I always follow are,

  • think fast
  • act fast
  • delegate fast

Speedbird 38

One of my favorite crisis responses took place on January 17, 2008. The line of work is in no way related to what I do, but this is a perfect illustration of how to deal with a mishap and come out on top. What makes the following example even more remarkable is that this was executed knowing fully well that human lives were at stake.

The scene: London’s Heathrow Airport.

BA38 was on final approach after a 5000 mile journey from Beijing, China. Long story short, ice crystals formed in the aircraft’s fuel tanks and clogged the fuel-oil heat exchanger on both engines. This resulted in both engines losing thrust, while at a dangerously low altitude mere meters away from the runway. Had the plane landed short of the runway, it would have hit the busy motorway and almost instantaneously killed all onboard as well as hundreds of motorists. The pilots resorted to quick thinking and retracted the flaps to allow the aircraft to glide a little bit more than it would have and made it past the motorway.

Eventually, the plane crashed on the apron of the runway. With everyone still alive and the plane having partially disintegrated on the apron, this is where the crisis response begins. While, the pilots did everything in their power to bring the plane down relatively safely, it was still a ticking time bomb which could burst into flames any second.

The following is a recording and transcript of the everything that went down after. Give it a listen and read my analysis of the time line.

YouTube

Timeline

0:16: Speedbird 38 (speedbird is British Airways’ callsign) is cleared to land on runway 27L

0:44: Speedbird 38 declares an emergency and transmits on ATC’s frequency that he is in trouble. He is clear, consise, and repeats himself on every term. Understandably shaken, he does slip up and mentions his callsign as 95 as against 38. No damage done though, and recognizing this, the tower doesn’t waste time correcting him.

0:56: ATC swings into action. First on the line is to halt other traffic using or approaching that runway. He asks 229 to stop and hold position.

0:58: ATC broadcasts whats just happened to emergency crews and to his colleagues. He repeats everything he says to be absolutely clear. He specifies the aircraft involved, the problem, location and co-ordinates a rendez-vous point. I love his calm and collected voice, taking time to make sure what he is saying is absolutely clear.

1:19: BA38’s captain, probably still shaken up, erroneously broadcasts his evacuate message over the ATC frequency. That message was actually meant for the cabin.

1:23: ATC very calmly, and respectfully responds saying he transmitted that message on his channel by mistake and advices him that fire service is already on the way.

1:26: QR11 (callsign Qatari 011) which was queued in to land right behind the crashed BA38 is asked to abort his landing and go around. He repeats his instructions and asks for an acknowledgement.

1:31: Qatari 011 acknowledges.

1:36: Fire Services updates on their progress towards the crash site and confirms a visual on the escape slides being deployed.

1:56: ATC goes back to addressing the other queued aircrafts waiting to land. QR11, the one immediately behind, has already been given the go-around. BA479 next after the Qatari, was asked to make a switch to the parallel runway if possible.

2:04: ATC makes a phone call to radar control to advice them of what is happening. Tells them about the aircrafts he has already switched to the parallel runway (27R) and asks to stop other ones from coming in.

2:25: ATC goes back to Qatari 011 to be absolutely sure he has initiated a go-around (missed approach) and isn’t trying to land into the mess.

2:36: ATC makes the call to officially close the runway. And advices about the steps he took with the two immediately queued in aircrafts.

I mean, this guy is an absolute genius. In the span of 2 minutes, he handled a mayday call, he reassured the pilot, corrected the pilot’s wrong transmission, talked to emergency services, called radar control to appraise his colleagues, spoke to the two other queued in aircrafts to make sure they don’t land into the mess, halted ground traffic, declared the runway closed and did this all with a clear and calm voice.

Every single soul on board walked away from the crash. Everyone survived.