Jumbo 747 passenger jet hit blustery weather, then captain raised alarm on fuel
By Roger Wilsher, Keith Perry, Susan Cooke and Alison Winward | 18 August 2012
Passengers boarding Virgin Atlantic flight number VS16 were leaving behind the breezy evening cool of Florida’s Orlando. They had no idea of the terrifying journey ahead.
Their Boeing 747-443, named ‘Jersey Girl’, was destined for Gatwick. The jumbo jet was due to leave on Monday January 2 at 7.50pm, but take-off was delayed by more than an hour-and-a-half.
They were on a 4,353-mile ‘red-eye’ from America’s sunshine state to a southern England battered by high winds and driving rain.
“Never been on a plane that has done a go-around. It did not feel safe because the plane was all over the place” – Passenger on Virgin flight number VS16
UK weather forecasters had issued a ‘yellow alert’, warning people to “be aware” of wind in southern England – Gatwick’s location.
There was no indication, however, that the flight would take any more than the usual eight hours. It was scheduled to arrive at 8.50am on Tuesday.
But as flight VS16 cut its way through the clouds over the Atlantic, a winter storm blew up across the UK.
In southern Scotland, where winds gusted at more than 80 miles per hour, the storm was judged the most severe for 13 years. Much of the UK suffered severe winds, falling trees and overturning lorries.
One man was killed by a falling tree in Kent. A sailor was killed when a large wave struck a vessel in the English Channel.
In the midst of this turmoil was Gatwick, the UK’s second-largest airport, where winds were gusting at just 31mph. Air-traffic control (ATC) took the precaution of diverting six flights to other UK airports, including Stansted, Southampton and East Midlands.
An Exaro investigation reveals that flight VS16 made two ‘go-arounds’ – aborted attempts to land – at Gatwick. Go-arounds burn fuel heavily. By 10.31am, Jersey Girl – registration code G-VGAL – had to head for Stansted.
A brief record filed to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says simply: “ATC had two full emergency calls in quick succession due to numerous diversions in extremely windy conditions. Emergency services were in attendance.”
Records kept by plane-spotters show that 17 aircraft were diverted to Stansted on January 3. They included another Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-443 flying from America, this one called ‘Hot Lips’ – registration G-VLIP. It was flight number VS44 from Las Vegas, originally destined for Gatwick.
A spokesman for NATS, which controls air traffic in the UK, confirmed that Stansted handled three ‘pan’ calls, which signal urgent situations, and one ‘mayday’, that day – all because of low fuel.
One of the pans came from flight VS16, alerting controllers that the plane was low on fuel and needed priority landing. As it flew through gusty conditions to Stansted, ATC scrambled emergency services.
Four fire trucks waited near the runway as flight VS16 descended towards the airport. With gusts buffeting the 11-year-old jumbo jet, the crew landed Jersey Girl safely.
One relieved female passenger reported the following day: “It was horrific. As a very nervous flyer, the go-arounds were terrible. Once we had landed at Stansted, and were told that we were refuelling and then going to try Gatwick again, I freaked and demanded to be let off the plane.” She was writing in an online forum for Virgin Atlantic passengers.
“Never been on a plane that has done a go-around. It did not feel safe because the plane was all over the place. I guess your imagination just comes up with too many unhappy endings.
“One I could have coped with, but two was one too many. And then to see so many fire engines on landing made me realise that it could have been bad. As I said, I am really not a good flyer. Not sure about flying again.”
Passengers were not told then that their plane had run low on fuel.
A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said: “Due to severe and abnormal weather conditions, two flights in January 2012 were diverted to Stansted. Following standard procedures, a pan alert was issued to air-traffic control to give a priority landing. Our fuel-management procedures are approved by the Civil Aviation Authority and comply with all industry regulations.”
After a day of drama, all the planes in emergency alerts that blustery Tuesday landed safely.
There were at least 28 cases of UK passenger jets making low-fuel emergency calls in the past two years