A gaping, charred hole has been left in the side of the British Airways plane which caught fire shortly before departing for London on Tuesday.
All 159 passengers and 13 crew escaped the 777 on emergency slides, with 14 people needing treatment for minor injuries, after the fire at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
The fire started in the left-side, General Electric-manufactured engine, sending plumes of black smoke billowing into the Nevada sky. Despite the panic the pilot, identified as Chris Henkey, of Reading, can be heard on audio recordings of the incident calmingly making a mayday call to airport officials.
The blaze, which is being investigated by the US National Transportation Safety Board, was quickly contained by around 50 firefighters.
Henkey, a former publican who once ran the Hatch Gate Inn in Burghfield, can be heard saying "mayday... request fire services" before telling officials "we are evacuating on runway, we have a fire, I repeat, we are evacuating".
Henkey, who has been a pilot for 42 years, has been praised by aviation experts for his "by the book" response to the incident, which was "every pilot's worst nightmare".
Chris Henkey, a Reading pilot with 42 years' experience, has been praised for the calm way he dealt with the fire
The pilot's ex-wife, Marnie, who is a former cabin crew member, said she was greatly relieved her former partner and the rest of the crew were safe.
She told the Guardian: “He is safe and happy. I’ve had some messages from him. He did a bloody good job.”
Told that Henkey, 63, was being described as a hero, she said: “He will always be that in my eyes.”
On a community Facebook group, the Mirror reports that Henkey's daughter Charley wrote: "Hi all yes was Papa Bear, last time I spoke to him he’d been to hospital for smoke inhalation and spoken to press but he is safe and wanting to come home!
"Thanks everyone for such amazing words of support."
Henkey's daughter told the Reading Chronicle the flight was "supposed to be one of his last".
She said: "I just hope he gets to fly again before he retires so that he ends on a high."
The 26-year-old told the newspaper how "the most emotional part is that I am just so proud of him".
Henkey had texted her, she said, saying there had been a "massive explosion" on his plane, but that he was alright.
According to reports the Henkey was applauded by passengers when he spoke to them in the safety of the terminal building, the Press Association reported.
Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, told the newspaper that pilots can go their entire career without a single incident, "but if it happens all the training and time in the simulator pays off".
He said: “While we await a meticulous investigation to help us understand this fire and prevent it happening again, all pilots will want to recognise the professional way the pilots and crew dealt with this emergency situation.”
In an initial statement British Airways said: "Safety is always our priority. We are looking after customers after a technical issue with the aircraft."
The airline later said it was organising alternative flights for affected passengers and providing them with accommodation and "anything further they require".
Those injured in the fire had been taken to hospital, treated and released, it said.
Guardian sports reporter Jacob Steinberg, who was on board, said: "You could smell the smoke from the outside, you could see it. I heard later that a couple of windows had melted.
"A couple of minutes later the stewards told us to evacuate – that sparked a lot of panic."
Speaking to AP, Reggie Bügmüncher from Philadelphia, said she saw "bursts of flames coming out of the middle of the plane" while waiting at a gate for her flight.
"Everyone ran to the windows and people were standing on their chairs, looking out, holding their breath with their hands over their mouths," she said.
Dominic Worthington, a passenger who lives in London, told NBC News: "We were literally just about to take off." He confirmed that smoke was visible on both sides of the plane.
No reason for the blaze has been established definitively, however Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor confirmed the left engine caught fire.
One runway was shut down due to the incident while three remained in use.
Fires aboard planes on the ground have proven fatal before, such as the 1985 Manchester Airport disaster, when a Corfu-bound British Airtours Boeing 737 caught fire as it was speeding down the runway, killing 55 people.
The tragedy led to many safety improvements, including making it easier for passengers to evacuate the plane.