A British Airways captain was forced to make a Mayday call just minutes before landing after fumes reportedly filled the cockpit.
The flight from Athens was on the approach to Heathrow when the co-pilot steering the plane fell ill, forcing the captain to take over and put on an oxygen mask.
The terrifying scenes unfolded in darkness just four nautical miles before the A320 aircraft touched down at Britain’s biggest airport.
A probe has been launched by the Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB
) amid fears another “fume event” could strike the airline. It is already fighting almost 100 class action cases of alleged “aereotoxicity” and 300 suspect fume leaks have been reported.
The latest incident, on Flight BA633 on January 2, saw the first officer on the Heathrow-bound jet fall ill with two minutes to go before landing.
Medical crews met the plane immediately after it was safely down and assessed the first officer, with passengers oblivious to the drama. Insiders said he fainted and was slumped over the controls but BA denied this, MailOnline reports.
The jet was grounded for 48 hours while engineers searched for what went wrong, and the first officer was allowed to go home. BA confirmed the Mayday call was made and oxygen masks were used, but would not reveal what made him unwell.
The airline is currently being sued by almost 100 former staff members who claim they were exposed to hazard fumes or aerotoxicity, with claimants led by the family of Richard Westgate.
Mr Westgate, a former BA pilot, died by suicide aged 43 in 2012, which his family says was a consequence of him self-medicating for previous exposure to toxic fumes. BA deny any liability in an ongoing High Court case.
Aviation experts say the fumes could result from tricresyl phosphate (TCP), a chemical in the oil used to reduce wear on plane engines. Smelling like old socks, it can cause vomiting if inhaled. An AAIB spokesman said: “An incident was reported to the AAIB and we are investigating. When our investigation has concluded we will publish a report.”
A BA spokesman said: “The Captain landed the aircraft safely, and customers disembarked as normal. As the First Officer was feeling unwell, he was seen by an airport paramedic as a precaution, before going home. We would never operate an aircraft if we believed it posed any health or safety risk to our customers or crew.
“Safety is our first priority and every report is thoroughly investigated, with typically 151 engineering checks before an aircraft is cleared to continue flying.
“Fume or odour events have been found to be caused by a wide range of issues, including burnt food in the oven, aerosols and e-cigarettes, strongly-smelling food in cabin bags, and de-icing fluid but until an onboard ‘real-time’ TCP detector is available the real cause and potential harm to pilots and cabin crew will never be known.
VN Aerotoxic Detection Solutions Ltd have built the worlds first prototype TCP handheld detectors and these are currently being tested at the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich.