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Posted Friday, January 18, 2008

The skies overhead here are strangely empty of planes. Total silence in fact. The car radio has the explanation.

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January 17, 2008 (Thursday)
Windsor (England)

I LEAVE for the Public Record Office around 12, after seeing the gardener John alright with tea and assigning the housekeeper Dawn to get the house ready for houseguests this weekend. (My enlightened landlord provides both for one day a week, to make sure everything is properly cared for.) Not that there is much furniture to arrange -- most of it was seized and destroyed by the trustees appointed by the authorities; we have a final shoot-out over this infelicity next month.

It is 12:30 when I get to the Kew archives, to spend the rest of the day reading the Heinrich Himmler decodes; to my horror, the computer screens come up with "all seats full" messages -- the building is undergoing a reconstruction, and capacity for us researchers is halved. There's a two-hour waiting list says Julie, the best of the PRO's assistants, so I give up and drive back to Windsor.

As I pass the Heathrow airport exits, I am overtaken by fleets of emergency vehicles, and warning signs ahead flash that the stretch is choked. I detour through Eton, have a coffee there and then drive on. The skies overhead here are strangely empty of planes. Total silence in fact.

The car radio has the explanation: a British Airways Boeing 777, flying in from Peking with 160 people on board, has pancake-landed at the airport, blocking the main runway. The television images are dramatic. During the afternoon it emerges that the pilot has said that both engines cut out four hundred feet above ground, on his final approach across the A-30 highway and the perimeter fence -- he "lost all power" and glided the three hundred ton plane in. It must have been a rough landing. The main landing gear has punched through the port wing; the starboard gear has torn right off and is a hundred yards away. Although both wings hold the fuel tanks, there has been no fire. The billion dollar plane is a write-off. As for the passengers -- all survived as did the crew, a superb testimony to the professionalism of both aircrew and cabin crew.

As I sit there admiring the cool composure of Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief, a thought occurs to me. When will the commentators recall to the viewers that it is only two weeks since the same thing happened to a Qantas heavy, a 747-400, in the final approach to Bangkok?

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It lost all electric power, suffered a total black out, and flew in on its brief emergency battery reserve. We were told that "a water leak" had short-circuited the power, but no other 747-400s were taken out of service, always something of a clue. Nobody mentions the Qantas incident, and I begin to wonder if they have been instructed not to -- whether a "D"-notice has been issued to the media on a very sensitive issue: did somebody, a suicide attacker, pull out a mobile phone on the 777 to check his messages? Or more deliberately: some kind of telephone-jamming device, designed to fry the internal wiring of these planes?

According to one expert, a woman professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was evidently an electro-magnetic pulse device being developed by the United States military which inadvertently brought down TWA 800 off Long Island on July 17, 1996. [see too this survey]

Unless airplane wiring is "hardened," it might be very prone to such a malicious attack. A passenger interviewed on the evening news reports, slightly mystified, that all passengers were taken off to a terminal building and held for an hour or two for "debriefing" by the police.

continueNow, that's interesting, as Captain Jack Sparrow would say.

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