The pilot of a National Airlines DC10 taking off from London's Heathrow Airport yesterday morning successfully brought the plane to a stop after several tires blew out and a fire started.
All 217 passengers aboard were evacuated down emergency chutes as flames licked at the underside of the jumbo jet, the Associated Press reported. National Airlines officials said that one passenger suffered a broken leg during the evacuation and that 11 others were treated for minor scrapes and bruises. None of the plane's 17 crew members was injured.
Airport firemen quickly extinguished the fire in the plane's wheel well.
U.S. aviation experts, based on early information about the incident, said it raises new questions about the tire performance, but not about the DC10, the troubled McDonnell-Douglas plane that former astronaut Pete Conrad plugs on television.
"Here is an airplaine that stopped safely on the runway with all the tires blown," said Anthony Broderick of the Federal Aviation Administration's aviation standards office. "That's all you can ask to do . . . From preliminary data there is nothing that disturbs us, other than we would like to see why the tires blew."
Passengers on Flight 99, nonstop from London to Miami, praised the crew. "We were building up a lot of speed and then there was a loud roar," Marjorie Lubbock told The Associated Press. "I could see fire and smoke out of the window on my right. We must have stopped very quickly."
Her husband Ronald said, "We owe the captain and the firemen our lives."
Officials in London said the DC10 was about halfway down the runway when someone in the airport control tower saw flames. The captain was notified and immediately brought the plane to a halt.
When a DC10 tire blows out, Broderick said, "the weight is [shifted to] the other three tires [mounted on the same landing gear]. It is not surprising that the other tires would blow."
A transatlantic flight, taking off, carries an enormous load in fuel that adds not only to the weight of the plane but also to the difficulty of controlling it on the runway.
"The tires to support that weight can't be built . . . and still fit the wheel wells in the airplane," he said.
The adequacy of tires is an old aviation safety issue that has become even more critical in the era of the jumbo jets. The FAA has upgraded requirements for tires in the past year, but softened in the process a proposed requirement that three remaining tires on a four-tire landing gear be capable of supporting the plane if one tire should fail.
"We found it can't be done," Broderick said.
The issue received considerable attention in March 1978 after a Continental Airlines DC10 blew a tire, aborted a takeoff at Los Angeles International Airport, then came to a halt beyond the end of the runway. Three persons were killed as a result of injuries suffered during the evacuation.
The Heathrow accident yesterday was different, Broderick said, because the National pilot "stopped the airplane on the runway, I think this demonstrates that the airplane is capable, at very high weight, on a high-speed takeoff, of safely aborting."
Under international agreement, the formal investigation will be directed by the British Board of Trade. The FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and Pan Am, which recently merged with National Airlines, will participate as observers.