Just before the UK’s deadliest-ever air accident, the plane’s pilot was involved in what one witness called “the most violent argument he had ever heard”.
British European Airways Flight 548 was a scheduled passenger flight from London Heathrow to Brussels that crashed near Staines, in Middlesex, soon after take-off on June 18 1972.
The crash, which killed all 118 people on board, remains the deadliest non-terrorist related plane crash in British aviation history.
Feelings were running hot among Britain’s pilots in the wake of a bitterly-contested industrial dispute, with battle lines drawn between younger pilots who wanted better pay and conditions and the older, more traditionally-minded flyers.
Key’s position on the strike had aroused deep feelings among his colleagues.
Graffiti criticising him was found on several BEA planes – including the Hawker Siddeley Trident he was flying on the fateful June day.
Scrawled on the flight engineer’s tray table were the ominous words “Key must go.”
Just over an hour before the plane was due to take off, a vicious row broke out between Key and another BA pilot named Flavell.
It later emerged that Key suffered from a heart condition that could have been dramatically worsened by the blow-up with Flavell.
A blood pressure spike that caused weak blood vessels to burst and open a piece of his arterial lining would have caused Key increasingly intense pain as he prepared for his pre-flight checks.
Air traffic controllers noted that Key responded to their calls tersely, perhaps revealing the pain he was in. His condition was reported in the popular press at the time as a ‘heart attack’.
As Flight 548 reached 1,770 feet, travelling at 162 knots (about 186mph) Key pulled a lever next to the Trident’s that activated a control surface that drastically reduced its speed.
The Trident went into a deadly stall.
Key, and his 22-year-old Second Officer Jeremy Keighley were completely taken by surprise by the sudden explosion of warning sounds and lights that shattered the peace of the cockpit.
An automatic security system called the “stick pusher” threw the plane into a dive to increase its airspeed but someone in the cockpit over-rode the system twice, trying to bring the aircraft’s nose back up.
That only worsened the already critical stall.
BEA flight 548 fell out of the sky almost vertically, spearing into the ground tail-first and narrowly missing a set of power lines. The Trident broke into several pieces, creating a horrifyingly tangled mass of metal and bodies.
A nurse, who lived nearby, rushed to the scene and found two passengers who were still showing some signs of life. Neither of them, sadly survived long enough to reach hospital.
In the wake of the crash, a controversial inquiry found that Key’s heart condition may have significantly contributed to the crash.
One recommendation of the report, which has remained in force to this day, was that all British-registered civil passenger-carrying aircraft of more than 27,000 kg (60,000 lb) all-up weight should be equipped with cockpit voice recorders resulted in their fitting becoming mandatory on larger British-registered airliners from 1973.