Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Share Your Story: Earl Moorhouse, Lufthansa Flight 540 Survivor

Welcome to the eleventh "Share Your Story" post. Pilots from around the world write in featuring their flight experiences, promoting their blogs, websites, social media, etc. These posts show future aviators the diverse range of careers available to them. More details + how to participate are here: Click Here and Get Involved


We have a special story today. Earl Moorhouse was onboard the first fatal 747 crash in history. As we all know, air travel has become amazingly safe. Sadly, the few crashes that have occurred were quite tragic. In his novel, Wake Up, It's a Crash, survivors of the crash recall what happened before, during, and after the plane went down. The novel is on amazon and available through the following link: On Amazon

Lufthansa Flight 540 was a scheduled commercial flight for Lufthansa operated with a Boeing 747-130, carrying 157 people (140 passengers and 17 crew members). The flight was operating the final segment of its Frankfurt – Nairobi – Johannesburg route. On 20 November 1974 it crashed and caught fire shortly past the runway on takeoff. The plane struck an elevated access road and broke up. The left wing exploded and fire spread to the fuselage. Of the 157 people aboard, 59 perished (55 passengers and 4 crew members). This was the first fatal accident and third hull loss of a Boeing 747.


Survivors Earl and Lynn Moorhouse recover at the Nairobi Hilton with their sons Brendon and Garett after escaping from the crashed 747. The boys were the youngest survivors. ©Earl Moorhouse No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

The day the first 747 went down
By Earl Moorhouse

I am not a pilot, but I have flown many thousands of miles across the world in my career as an international journalist. Nothing I experienced in all those hours of flying prepared me for what happened on the morning of November 20, 1974.

On that day I and my family found ourselves fighting for our lives in the the world’s first Boeing 747 jumbo jet disaster.

The night before, I and my wife Lynn, and our two sons, Garett, aged seven, and Brendon, aged six, boarded Lufthansa’s 747 jumbo jet Hessen at Frankfurt in Germany for a flight scheduled to take us to Johannesburg, South Africa. En route, in the morning, there would be a one-hour refuelling stop at Nairobi, in East Africa.

Lufthansa 747-130 D-ABYB (plane involved in the crash)

It was dark as we lifted off from Frankfurt. We were seated between the wings, about halfway down the passenger cabin. I was sitting on the left side of the aircraft in a group of three seats, with the aisle on my right. My sons were seated on my left: Brendon, the youngest, next to the window, and Garett in between us. My wife was seated in the same row, immediately across the aisle.

While we slept, the 747 crossed the Mediterranean and the African deserts, and in the early morning we touched down in Nairobi. After refuelling and a change of crew, the big jet taxied away from the terminal with 157 on board, turned at the head of the runway and began its take-off run.

Another photo of the Lufthansa 747-130

The engines were thrusting us along, the runway and grass beginning to blur. But I felt uneasy. Too slow, I thought. We’ll never make it. I looked past Lynn, sitting across the aisle, and saw the airport buildings going madly by and thought, see, we are going fast enough. We will make it.

The nose wheel lifted. A few tense seconds and the jumbo rose into the air. But there was no thrust in the climb, no feeling of being pressed back against the seat. A violent shuddering began, and I sensed we were flying in a doomed aircraft. The engines were shaking in their mountings and there was a loud metallic coughing. I looked across the aisle at Lynn and thought, this is it.

We were up about a hundred feet and, looking down, I saw the ground staying the same distance away.

We passed the end of the runway. Below us was only rough bush. The 747 began to lose height. We were going in . . . but my mind refused to accept it. I stared out, unable to react, sensing death ahead, feeling an icy cold shiver ran up my back. The ground came closer.

“Put your head down!” my wife Lynn shouted, and I pulled Garett down so his head was on his knees. Brendon was still sleeping, sprawled back in his seat. I couldn’t reach him.

It was unearthly inside the jet. No one screamed. No one shouted to us to do anything. There was only that mechanical coughing, the sound of things crashing about, objects falling. Some passengers were still sitting erect in their seats.

Out of nowhere, an embanked earth road loomed up. Garett shifted his head to look.

“Stay down!” I shouted, pushing at him.

I saw the nun in the row ahead bow her head. I ducked. There was a sickening crash as we struck. The lights went out and my head smashed against the seat in front. Rows of seats tore loose from the floor and folded forward. We were trapped in between, my feet pressing against the heaving floor to keep us upright. I saw Brendon being hurled like a rag doll.

I shouted, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

He did not answer and I thought, has he broken his neck?

The jumbo reared up, the rear section shattering, the forward section bouncing over the embankment.

Then the jet struck again. It felt as if we were on the ground, sliding along. The aircraft slewed to the left. There were ripping sounds, and sections of the ceiling, lockers and luggage began falling. Dust filled the cabin. And we were still sliding.

I saw flames and black smoke where the port wing had been. There was only a small sheet of glass between us and the fire. Then all movement stopped. I sat stunned in my seat.

The Lufthansa Boeing 747 burns fiercely in the African bush behind two Nairobi Airport firemen. The seats and some of the larger pieces of wreckage are from the rear section of the fuselage, which shattered on impact with an embanked road. ©Earl Moorhouse No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

“Get out!” Lynn yelled at me. “Get out!” She was struggling with her seat belt.

I unbuckled my belt and Garett’s and dragged him into the aisle. He moved without speaking, eyes wide. I leaned over to pull up the armrests. We had to get Brendon out. I thought, we’ll never make it. We’re going to be burned.

Lynn leaped across the aisle, came up from behind and unbuckled Brendon’s belt, shouting, “Wake up, it’s a crash! It’s a crash!” and dragged him, mumbling and half-asleep, into the aisle.

“Is he all right?”

“Yes,” Lynn cried, “yes!”

In the seat behind us I saw an elderly man with blood on his forehead. He was making no effort to get up.

“Get out!” Lynn shouted to me. “Quickly!”

But there was debris all around. Large sections of the ceiling blocked our path, and the overhead lockers had broken off. All sorts of wreckage was falling: white powdery material, chips of plastic, pieces of luggage. The whole aircraft seemed to be closing in on us, and all the time there were flames at the windows and a smell that tore at the throat and nostrils.

Rescuers support Flight Engineer Rudi Hahn as he is taken for medical treatment after injuring his shoulder during evacuation from the burning aircraft. ©Earl Moorhouse No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

Behind us, the rear section of the 747 was missing. A diffused light filtered through and Lynn moved instinctively towards it.

“No!” I shouted. “Go forward!” I had Garett’s hand in mine and pushed ahead. I managed, one-handed, to hurl aside some of the fallen ceiling, and smashed a path through the wreckage in the aisle. As we headed towards the front I felt someone close behind. I looked over my shoulder and saw it was the nun.

There was no escape to the left, only flames. I saw the safety diagram in my mind: we had to go towards the front, and then to the right. Dragging Garett along, I reached the kitchen and pulled him into it. From the starboard side of the aircraft a man’s voice was shouting, “Raus! Out! Raus!”

The kitchen was in ruins. Equipment had fallen over, blocking our path. A man came up beside me and together we kicked once, twice, and we were through. The nun ran past.

I could see the open doorway ahead, daylight streaming in, and people leaping out. At that moment I lost sight of Lynn. I looked back desperately, but could not see her. Oh no, no, no, I thought, hesitating near the doorway, flanked by two yelling crew members, what’s happened to them?

Volunteers assess the condition of a victim as they search through the wreckage for survivors. ©Earl Moorhouse No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

“Lynn,” I shouted. “Where are you?”

There was no response. The two crew members were grabbing me.

What I did not know was that Brendon had broken free from Lynn’s grip. He ran towards the first-class section, where the impact had opened up cracks in the floor so large that passengers had fallen through, still strapped to their seats. Lynn chased after Brendon, reached out and grabbed him before he disappeared.

I yelled again, and suddenly she was coming through the wreckage. She had Brendon by the hand.

“Get out,” she shouted as she came. “We’re all right. Get out!”

A steward had me by the arm, shouting, “Raus! Raus!” He hurled me through the door. I landed on the chute and scrambled down. Alongside me was Garett. And behind came Lynn with Brendon, both in their socks.

There was an explosion as we reached the ground. A man shouted, “Run, it’s going to explode! Run!”

A remarkable picture, taken moments after the 747 crashed, by Nairobi Daily Nation photographer Samuel Ouma, using a telephoto lens. He was at Nairobi Airport when the aircraft went down. Alerted by onlookers’ screams and shouts, he dashed onto the runway and ran towards the crash site, taking photographs as he went ©Earl Moorhouse No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

We got up and ran. Ahead, a man with a limp was running wildly across the bush, looking back, stumbling, regaining his balance, and carrying on. Brendon had no shoes. I picked him up and ran with him over the rough ground. He seemed dazed, half-asleep. When we had gone about fifty yards Garett tripped and fell face down. He scrambled to his feet, his face covered in mud. My wife was crying, “My babies, oh, my babies! Thank God, you’re safe. Thank God.”

We reached the top of a slope and looked back. I saw flames erupting high over the 747 cabin. The tail section was missing and the nose had been damaged, and people were running away. I noticed with some surprise that the shattered jet had swivelled right round. It was now facing back the way we had come.

We ran on, and four Kenyans, a woman and three men, came up and embraced us. “You are safe,” the woman said, wide-eyed, and stroked the children. “God is with you today!” 

A man offered us his broken shoes, pointing at the mud-covered socks on Lynn’s and Brendon’s feet. I looked at the man and felt close to tears. 

--Copyright Earl Moorhouse 2013.

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Copyright information:

This article is protected by copyright. No re-use or copying is permitted without permission. Contact the author by email or publisher Squire’s Yard mail@

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Author’s note:

You can read a full account of the world’s first Boeing 747 disaster in my book Wake Up, It’s A Crash! now available in e-book on and
The book follows the experiences of several survivors, including crew members, and onlookers. The stories are linked in a dramatic fashion, showing how ordinary people responded in extraordinary ways to this nightmarish event.
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Thank you so much Earl for sharing your amazing experience with us. What you went through is something which only a handful of people around the world can say they've been through. When air travel goes wrong, it can go wrong in a very big way. 

I want to recommend Earl's book to anyone who might be interested in reading the accounts of the crash from it's survivors. There are some truly incredible stories. 

Thanks again for writing in and participating in the Share Your Story section of the blog, 

Swayne Martin 
Martins Aviation / From Private to Professional Pilot
Twitter: @MartinsAviation
Youtube: MartinsAviation1 

For me, this story reminded me of the recent 747 crash in Afghanistan. In that case, it sounds as if the 747 stalled due to a drastic weight shift from it's military cargo. Sadly, no survivors were recovered from the crash. My thoughts go out to the families which have been affected by the loss of their loved ones. Here is the video which recently went viral. Watch with care, it can be difficult to watch considering there were no survivors: 


  1. OMG, Swayne, an incredibly intense story! And a sobering reminder of the hazards of the profession/hobby we all so love. Thanks for sharing.

    I have a question: you post so many great stories here, where do you find the time to study for school and flight training?!?!


    1. Thanks for the comment! It's amazing how safe air travel is nowadays. But when something goes wrong, it often goes wrong in a very bad way.

      I try to fit in a little time everyday to add a new story that has been sent to me. There are 5/6 more which are in my draft section, ready to be published. I'm spacing them out... Flying has been slow recently. I haven't gone up in 3 weeks and am hoping for this weekend. I supplement my own training with amazing stories like these :)

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Wow....that's sobering and incredible at the same time. I'm definitely going to take a look at the book.

    Thanks to the author for sharing and you for posting Swayne.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I personally can't wait to check out the book,

  3. This is an amazing story. Thank you for introducing us to Earl. And Earl... you, your wife and those boys have something grand in store for you in this life. An amazing story. I'm looking forward to reading your book!

  4. From Earl:

    I have only just realised that there have been comments on my article about the Lufthansa 747 crash. Apologies to you all for not picking this up sooner! Thanks for taking the time to write and for communicating your feelings about the article.

    Karlene, I was especially touched by your response. Thanks so much for your kind words and thoughts. It’s true, this was a shocking event for all the members of my family and for our relatives who waited in distress for several hours before hearing that we had survived. We were fortunate, but I sometimes think about the other families who waited too, only to receive the worst possible news.

    Although articles like mine do portray the "dark side" of aviation (when things go wrong), it is, as Swayne points out, an astonishingly safe form of travel. Plus, there are investigation systems in place internationally to ensure that safety continues to advance each time there is a difficulty or an accident.

    My thanks to Swayne for his invitation to tell my story on this site, and for his excellent laying-out of the article, and superb choice of pictures.

    Earl Moorhouse, Bath, England -

  5. I find it incredibly touching... where the man offered his broken shoes. Sometimes it takes a disaster and strife to bring out the best in humanity in the simplest most unexpected ways.

  6. Sorry I missed these posts but I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Earl a while ago for our programme Xtended. It was one of the most amazing yet sobering tales one could imagine. Earl is certainly one of the most gracious individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting in the sector. If you are interested, our programme link is here

    Regards, Pieter


Thanks for your comment; I really appreciate it! Glad you are here with me on the blog. If your comment does not appear right away, it will after verification.

Many Thanks, Happy Flying,
Swayne Martin