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Hero pilot in Las Vegas jet fire was only a flight away from retirement

By Neil Lancefield

Published 11/09/2015

Thick black smoke belches from the Boeing 777-200 after it burst into flames at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas
Thick black smoke belches from the Boeing 777-200 after it burst into flames at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas
Chris Henkey

The veteran British Airways pilot hailed a "hero" for saving the lives of passengers on a burning plane bound for London was only one flight away from retiring.

Investigations continue into what caused the left engine of the Boeing 777-200 to burst into flames on the runway at Las Vegas Airport on Wednesday, forcing 157 passengers, 10 crew and three pilots to evacuate down emergency slides.

BA would not reveal how many of the passengers were British, although the Las Vegas to Gatwick route is popular with UK leisure travellers.

The captain, Chris Henkey (63), from Reading, Berkshire, has 42 years of flying experience with BA and was on his penultimate flight before leaving the profession.

But he told NBC News he was "unlikely" to make his final flight, which would have taken him to Barbados to join his daughter in his favourite holiday destination.

"It's safe to say I'm finished flying," Mr Henkey said.

His fiancée Lenka Nevolna (40) said: "He's a hero. He's a great man with a warm heart and generosity, and I'm very proud of him."

She said she was "very shocked" by what had happened and added: "I'm glad that no one's hurt and everything is going to be fine."

Asked if he is always so cool and calm, she said: "Yes, most of the time, and he's loved by everyone, we are very proud of him."

His ex-wife Marnie, who is a former cabin crew member and with whom he has a daughter, expressed her relief that he and the rest of the crew had got out safely.

"He is safe and happy," she told The Guardian. "I've had some messages from him. He did a bloody good job."

Twenty-seven people were taken to hospital with minor injuries, mostly caused by sliding down the inflatable chutes to escape. They included all crew members. The patients were released the same day.

Four investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are examining the aircraft, including engine, systems and fire specialists.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said: "We're interested in the exact chain of events."

CNN reported that a source close to the investigation noted the plane's fire suppression equipment was deployed, but failed to extinguish the blaze.

Investigators are considering whether the equipment worked properly, or whether the fire spread due to a ruptured fuel line, the report added.

BA issued a statement which said the plane "experienced a technical issue''.

The aircraft was travelling at between 40 and 100mph ahead of the 10-hour flight to Gatwick when the captain slammed on the brakes.

An audio recording of the conversation between the cockpit and air traffic control shows how efficiently the emergency was dealt with.

Speaking calmly and clearly, a male voice from the plane said: "Mayday, Mayday, Speedbird 2276 request fire services."

The woman in the control tower immediately replied: "Heavy fire services on the way."

Forty seconds later the pilot added: "We are evacuating on the runway. We have a fire. I repeat, we are evacuating."

Karen Bravo, a 60-year-old Las Vegas resident who was on the flight, said: ''Everyone was screaming: 'Just keep on running.'

"It was like a scene out of Die Hard."

McCarran International Airport said it was alerted to the emergency at 4.13pm local time (12.13am BST Wednesday) and within five minutes all passengers were off the plane and the blaze was extinguished.

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