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March 4, 2005

'Crossing the Atlantic With a Dead Engine' — Why I won't be flying British Airways


The headline of this post (the part in quotes) is what appeared over this past Tuesday's (March 1) Wall Street story by Scott McCartney about the bizarre occurrences surrounding British Airways Flight 268 out of Los Angeles on February 19, bound nonstop for London's Heathrow Airport.

I believe the British Airways pilots believed a bit too strongly in the importance of the "nonstop" aspect of the flight, and I think that if you should happen to make it to the end of what — at least at this juncture – appears to be shaping up to be a long, long post, you will agree with me.

So let us go now, you and I, to where airplanes fill the sky....

BA Flight 268 with 351 passengers aboard departed Los Angeles just after 9:24 p.m. on that rainy Saturday evening.

Nothing special there: LA's had record rainfall this year, far exceeding that of Seattle.

Anyway, shortly after takeoff the Boeing 747-400 experienced an unusual power surge in its No. 2 engine, located on the left side closest to the cabin.

Passengers heard two loud pops as the plane took off, one passenger told the Times of London, which wrote about the incident on February 25.

Los Angeles area residents went so far as to call the airport to report seeing sparks flying out from beneath the wing of the plane and hearing a loud "popping of engines," according to the airport.

On board the plane the pilots decided to shut down the engine.

According to McCartney's Wall Street Journal story, "The captain announced to the passengers that the plane had lost an engine and the crew was considering whether to return to continue to the U.K."

Let's stop here for a moment, all right?

Now, I'm just a [near?] brain-dead blogging anesthesiologist, not a jet pilot, but I must say that if you asked me, sitting on that plane, or even sitting here at my computer, what should happen next I'd say bring the plane right back down at LAX after clearing the runways and preparing emergency crews.


But hey, that's why I pass gas and don't fly planes.

The plane headed southwest over Santa Monica Bay, climbed to 5,000 feet, and circled over the Pacific Ocean on its three working engines for more than 20 minutes while the pilots diagnosed the problem and consulted with airline engineers in the British Airways operations center London about what to do next.

According to aviation experts, as noted in Sara Kehaulani Goo's Washington Post story of March 1, "the pilots had several choices: they could return immediately to Los Angeles International, but they would need to dump fuel over the ocean first because the plane would have been too heavy to land."

"They could continue on to another major airport such as O'Hare International Airport in Chicago or New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the carrier has a major presence, so mechanics could look at the engine."

"Or the crew could continue on for 11 hours to Heathrow."

"British Airways said the flight crew, in close cooperation with the airline engineers in London, chose the last option."

The jet headed north over the U.S. and Canada, up near the North Pole, then down across the Atlantic.

Now, you might be interested to know that only two days prior to this ill-starred flight the European Union had instituted a new policy of making airlines compensate passengers for delays.

The airline would have had to pay travellers €210,000 ($280,000) — €600 ($788) apiece — if they got to London's Heathrow Airport more than five hours late.

For a company teetering on the financial brink of disaster — that would be almost every major carrier in the world — that's some serious cash.

On top of which they'd have had to absorb the cost of dumping tons of expensive jet fuel from the topped-up plane and the cost of putting up the passengers and crew in hotels.

But you know all that money stuff would never have entered into the thinking of anyone associated with British Airways — right?

I mean, British Airways said in the Wall Street Journal article that the plane was safe flying on three of its four engines, and it has done the same thing before — once in April 2003, for instance, on the same Los Angeles-London route.

"Had there been any kind of a question on safety, they would have turned back to Los Angeles or gone to another U.S. airport," said British Airways spokesman John Lampl in McCartney's story.

Now why doesn't that make me feel better?

Lampl went on to say that any suggestion that the plane continued because of financial pressure from the new EU rules was "total rubbish."

I'm still not feeling better.

I must be cynical or something.

Because there are others in the airline business with a somewhat different take on the situation.

For U.S. airlines, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require commercial airlines to land at the nearest suitable airport after an engine failure.

Gee, that's pretty straightforward: it even seems like common sense you'd expect from any fourth-grader.

Bernard Loeb, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said of British Airway's decision to fly on to the U.K., "I don't think it was an appropriate decision at all."

Barry Schiff, a retired 747 captain with TWA who has written books on proper flying procedures and is the recipient of a congressional commendation for his work on airline safety, told the Wall Street Journal, "Continuing on after an engine failure on take-off is nuts."

Huh — that's just how that fourth-grader put it. But I digress.

Unable to climb as high as planned because of the loss of the engine, the plane flew at a lower altitude across the Atlantic, increasing drag and fuel burn.

In addition, with two engines on one side of the plane but only one on the other, the plane's rudder had to be used to keep the aircraft flying straight, which increased drag as well.

The plane failed to get as much of a tail wind as the pilots expected at the lower altitude, due to strong headwinds: this too increased fuel consumption.

Hey, I'll make you a bet: the pilots didn't engage the autopilot on this flight.

At least, I hope not.

Long story longer, the plane ran low on fuel short of London and was forced to put out a Mayday distress call and divert to Manchester airport so as not to run out of fuel.

The plane was met by several firetrucks and emergency response teams and managed to make a safe emergency landing in Manchester.

Lampl, the British Airways spokesman, told the Washington Post that the decision to continue with a flight despite the loss of one of the four engines "happens infrequently."

Gee, I'm still not comforted by what I'm reading — how about you?

Well, now comes the really good part.

Today's Wall Street Journal ran another story by Scott McCartney, this one describing an eerily similar second occurrence involving the very same airplane: it was headlined, "High Anxiety, Part II: Same 747 Flies Again On Three Engines."

At first I thought maybe I was confused, and it was April Fool's Day but no, it's only March 4, so I guess it's for real.

But it's really hard to believe what transpired.

That very same British Airways Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet, registered as G-BNLG, had a repeat occurrence on its next round trip after the Februrary 19 engine failure: it lost an engine en route from Singapore to London but once again the crew continued, flying 11 hours with a dead engine.


Same crew, I wonder?

After all, by now they should be experts at carting giant planes with hundreds of passengers and a dead engine around the world.

British Airways said Flight 18 left Singapore with 356 passengers shortly after 11:35 p.m. local time and suffered an engine failure three-and-a-half hours into the flight.

As in the Los Angeles incident on February 19, the crew communicated with the airline's operations center in London and decided to continue.

About 11 hours later, the flight landed uneventfully at London's Heathrow Airport.

British Airways spokeswoman Diana Fung said, "It's perfectly safe to fly with three engines."

The FAA said it had continued to have "concerns" about the first flight, the one emanating from Los Angeles on February 19.

Backtracking for a moment, here's what happened to the plane after its emergency landing at Manchester at the conclusion of the first episode in this ongoing saga.

1) British Airways flew the empty plane from Manchester to London.

2) Mechanics replaced the No. 2 engine.

3) The plane was returned to regular service and flew from London to Singapore.

4) On the return flight from Singapore to London the replacement No. 2 engine signaled an oil pressure warning and the pilots shut it down.

5) The flight continued as noted above, landing at London's Heathrow.

6) The replacement No. 2 engine was itself replaced and the plane was returned to service.

Fung, the British Airways spokeswoman, told the Wall Street Journal that the airline doesn't believe the engine failures are in any way related.

"It's just a strange coincidence that it was the same aircraft," she said.

The FAA said it believed the initial flight from Los Angeles to London on three engines would have violated U.S. aviation regulations but the British crew was flying a British plane under British regulations, which allowed the flight to continue.


Maybe the crew and the FAA should have looked out the window to see if that was Missoula or Manchester out the port window. But I digress.

My thoughts on the above?

1) I can't speak for you but if I'd been seated on the left side of Flight 268 that rainy Saturday evening in Los Angeles and heard loud popping sounds and saw sparks flying from the engine right next to me, I'd sure have been anxious.

In fact, I'd have been scared, and certain there was serious danger.

So when, after flying around in circles over the Pacific Ocean for a while, the captain's voice came on and announced we were continuing to London as planned, no problema, I'd probably not have shrugged and gone to sleep.

And then, after 11 hours of anxiety that probably seemed much longer than that, when the captain came on the intercom over England and said we were running low on fuel, and were diverting to Manchester for an emergency landing, well, I'd have been just a bit less than thrilled.


2) Why has there not been a single word in the New York Times, the supposed "paper of record," about the events recounted above?

3) Why is the Wall Street Journal leading the coverage of what, at least to this prospective passenger, smacks of so-called "production pressure" gone mad?

I must say that every now and then a surgeon climbs all over me about my having cancelled a case because of a very slight increased risk to the patient.

He asks, couldn't we still do it if this, that and the other?

I reply, sure we could — but I won't.

Ooh, they don't like that.

But you know what?

1) I don't care one whit about what the surgeon thinks.

2) There may be a relationship, however tenuous, to my almost pathological pursuit of the lowest risk possible for my patients and the fact that I have yet to have been sued in many, many years of very high-risk practice in tertiary-care teaching hospitals.

Ya think?

I hate to repeat hackneyed cliches, you know that, but I must say that there is one that really best sums up the British Airways adventure flights:

"When someone says it's not about the money — it's about the money."


And that's all I have to say about that.

March 4, 2005 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


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Somewhat belatedly adding to this thread: I too was on this flight with my partner - in the "interesting" back of the economy cabin on the side of the plane with the engine problem and a "good view" of the flames coming out of the engine.
Certainly a fair number of passengers in this cabin saw what was going on and were rather nervous... and at one point we had the added benefit hearing some of the cockpit discussion which indicated some lack of clarity about what the crew wanted to do about the situation.
What surprised me most (naive I guess) after the event was that we heard not a word from BA about the incident.

Posted by: Keith House | Sep 17, 2005 3:10:14 PM

My wife & I were passengers on this flight. Here is my passenger’s eye view of the incident. (When reading it, it might be worth bearing in mind that I am a pretty “laid back” individual who doesn’t easily get stressed – so other passengers may have a different point of view.)

My wife & I were in the “World Traveller Plus” (Premium Economy) cabin, sitting over the front of the starboard wing, so unfortunately (or is that fortunately!) we couldn’t see the affected engine from where we sat. We were, however, well aware of the problem a few seconds after take-off when we heard a loud (but muffled) “bang, bang, bang, bang…” noise and felt a violent vibration which went on for what I would estimate was about 5 or 6 seconds (this would tie in with reports I have read from an eyewitness on the ground, who reported a 20 ft jet of flame coming from the inner engine on the port wing, lasting for about 6 seconds). The noise and vibration then stopped and the plane continued its ascent – but it was climbing VERY slowly, so it seemed pretty obvious to me that the pilot must have shut down one of the engines.

There were a lot of anxious looking passengers at this point (not least my wife) – but I was surprised to see that (at least within my field of view and hearing distance) there was no sign of panic or screaming. I’m not sure if it was any different at the back of the plane (from where the flames would have been easily visible). Not surprisingly, the captain hadn’t made any announcement at this point (I assumed he had much more important things to think about at that time, so I was quite happy to wait!).

We continued to climb slowly and headed out to sea. At some point later (as I remember it, it seemed quite soon after takeoff, but it may have been after we started circling over the Pacific) we went through two more sequences of the loud banging and violent shaking – which I assumed was caused by the pilot trying (and failing) to get the engine running again, although I have no proof of this. I don’t know whether there were any more flames present during these events.

I think it must have been a short time after this that the captain made an announcement to the effect that (I’m paraphrasing) “as the people on the left hand side of the plane must be only too aware, there was a ‘surge’ in one of the engines just after take off, so I have shut it down. I am now going to circle over the ocean for about 10 minutes while I assess the situation and contact BA headquarters before deciding how best to proceed”.
The cabin crew then started moving about the cabin to help to reassure anxious passengers. I heard one of the cabin stewards suggest to one passenger that he thought we would dump fuel over the ocean then return to Los Angeles – little did he know…

After circling for about 15(?) minutes, the captain made a second announcement to say that, having assessed the situation and spoken to the people on the ground, he had decided to continue to London on three engines. He did say that in his opinion it was perfectly safe to do this and we could be assured that if he had had any safety concerns he would not be taking this course of action. He also said that having recomputed the flight plan, he was confident that we had sufficient fuel for the journey. The new flight plan gave a landing time of 4:20pm (rather than the scheduled landing time of 2:55pm).

I think the cabin crew were somewhat surprised by this announcement, but they soon got into their cheery, “continue as normal” mode and quickly set about handing out the free booze! (although I did later hear from a passenger nearer the back of the plane that things had not been quite as cheerful back there). There was some muttering amongst the passengers, but on the whole I think most people (at least within my earshot in the small World Traveller Plus cabin) were willing to trust the captain’s judgement on this (not that there was much we could do about it, anyway).

Watching the “moving map” display, it was interesting to see that the plane headed off across the USA in a much more easterly direction than I had expected (the solid line showing where we had been was heading roughly east, but the dotted, great circle continuation line was much more northerly). I assumed at the time that the pilot was keeping his options open with regards to possible alternative landing sites in the US, but it did worry me slightly that he might run short of fuel if he took a longer route. Having thought about it since, I suppose the easterly course might also have been to avoid any mountains that might be higher than we could fly over if we lost another engine, or it might just be that this "southerly route" was where the better winds were – but I have no way of knowing what the pilot was actually thinking.

Unfortunately I didn’t spend much time studying the moving map during the flight, since it seemed to make my wife more anxious – so I thought it was better to keep her calm than it was to study the flight in great detail. I did occasionally look at it though – and the two things that stuck in my mind were that we seemed to spend a lot of time at only 27,000ft (although we did get higher later), and we were flying through almost still air (without the tail wind we would have expected if we had been in the jet stream). The display often showed headwinds of, say, 4mph or tailwinds of, say, 3mph – tiny figures. I therefore made a mental note to myself that I would be surprised if we made it all the way to Heathrow (although I thought it best not to mention it to my wife). Another interesting piece of information from the flight display was that our arrival time stayed pretty constant at about 4:20pm or 4:30pm – so we can’t have been losing too much time due to the unexpectedly low altitude or unfavourable winds. Indeed we finally landed at Manchester at about 4:04pm (so not much later than the flight plan had predicted 10 or so hours earlier) – but presumably only by burning more fuel to keep our speed up.

I didn’t notice the precise time that our destination on the moving map changed from Heathrow to Manchester – but I think it was very late on (only a few minutes (maybe 20 minutes?) before we landed there). The captain made an announcement that we were running low on fuel so he had decided to divert to Manchester “where we would be met by an army of ground staff who would help us with our onward travel arrangements to either Heathrow or other destinations for which we had missed our connections”. He said that our shortage of fuel was because Canadian air traffic control had been unable to allocate him the altitude he needed (I assumed at the time that he meant over Canada, but I suppose he might have meant over the Atlantic).

At Manchester we made a pretty good landing (past a group of fire engines, with lights flashing) although we did seem to brake very hard and stop very quickly. I can only guess that this was because we needed to leave the runway at one of the early exits, to keep us well away from the terminal building. We sat on the tarmac for quite a while before the doors were finally opened and we transferred to buses to drive us to the terminal. I had a quick look at the faulty engine as I climbed down the aircraft's front steps - but I couldn't see any obvious signs of damage.

We had to collect our luggage (which took quite a long time) then check in at the BA desks for a shuttle flight down to Heathrow (they had sent a plane up from Gatwick to pick us up, and said there would be a later flight for anyone who didn’t make it onto this first plane). There was an enormous (but surprisingly calm) queue of people checking in for this flight. The ground staff coped pretty well (as the cabin staff had done on the flight). In addition to this special BA flight, some people were put on a British Midland flight; I’m not sure how many people failed to make it onto one of these first two flights (nor how many people decided to continue their journey by road or rail). The original intention was that the BA flight would leave Manchester at about 6pm, but people weren’t being checked in that quickly. My wife and I got onto the plane at about 6:15pm but had to wait there for over an hour until the final wheelchair-bound passenger could be carried to her seat. We finally reached Heathrow at about 8pm (5 hours later than scheduled, but glad to be home).

As to whether the captain made right decision in the circumstances, I’m not really in a position to say. I’m inclined to think he did (at least from an operational point of view – although the resulting bad publicity might make it less good from a commercial point of view). After all, it was his life on the line just as much as ours, so I doubt he would wilfully have made a reckless decision. I’m also not as sure as some of the armchair experts seem to be that the alternatives were that much safer (and they were almost certainly less convenient).

Some people seem to believe that we should have immediately returned to LAX – but, as I understand it, we would have been too heavy to land immediately, so that meant that we would have had to spend an appreciable amount of time either burning up or dumping fuel prior to landing. I don’t understand the mechanics of dumping fuel, but I am not sure that I fancy the idea of dumping it anywhere near an engine that has recently been emitting a sheet of flame! In any case, if we could stay in the air long enough to do that, why shouldn’t we be heading in the right direction while doing it (and assessing the situation as the flight progressed)?

One thing that might make me change my mind about it being the right decision is if it turns out that the engine suffered something other than a simple “surge”. If it had suffered physical damage, that might potentially have damaged other parts of the aircraft, I would have been less happy about carrying on. I don't know whether the captain's instruments etc gave him sufficient information to confirm that it was simply a surge and nothing else.

I suppose that if I had been given the chance to vote on it, I would probably have chosen to land somewhere like New York or Chicago, rather than flying across the Atlantic on 3 engines (has there ever been a successful landing of a 747 on water?) – but I am willing to believe that the pilot understood the situation better than anyone else, and so was the best person to make the decision as to how to continue. As it turned out, we all got home in one piece – and even on the right day, so I didn’t have to take an extra day off work :o)
It’s unfortunate that we had to land at Manchester rather than actually making it to Heathrow in one go, but in the great scheme of things it wasn’t a big problem.

As to the amount of fuel remaining, I don’t understand how a 747’s fuel system works, but I have seen suggestions that (despite still having about 5 tons of fuel) there might have been some doubt in the captain’s mind as to whether the fuel pumps could get all of the fuel to where he needed it for the remaining three engines. It therefore seems only good sense to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible.

A lot has been made of the fact that the captain made a mayday call (although we weren’t aware of this as passengers) and didn’t want to “go around” – but as I see it, that was a sensible precaution to ensure that he had a clear runway to land on. I have also seen it suggested by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about, that it is best to avoid flying “nose up” (as when “going around”) when fuel is low – something to do with the way that fuel is fed from the tanks.

One thing that I think is very important in these types of situations is keeping anxious passengers informed of what is going on. On this particular flight the captain said the problem was caused by a “surge” in the engine, and he mentioned sparks or flames & vibration. This did at least tally with what we had experienced – although I don’t suppose many of us had any idea what a “surge” was. Personally speaking, I would have felt less anxious if he had gone on to say something along the lines of:
“For those of you who don’t know, a surge in a jet engine is somewhat similar to a car back firing. It looks & feels dramatic, but it is not in itself dangerous, and does not imply serious damage within the engine, or to any other aircraft component. I can see from my instruments & gauges, that all other engines are functioning normally, and the engine I have shut down is not causing fuel loss, or any other problems. This aircraft incorporates a high degree of redundancy in its design and is certified to fly for long distances on three engines. In the extremely unlikely event of me having to shut down another engine, it is also perfectly capable of flying, and landing, using any two of its engines. Whilst this situation may seem somewhat dramatic, please be assured that it is something that we pilots train for on a regular basis”.

I would only have wanted him to say things that were true, but if he could have said at least some of this, it would have made me feel happier and less anxious. It might also have given me something more concrete to discuss with my wife when trying to convince her that we weren’t about to fall out of the sky.

I also think it would have been good to have been told why we couldn’t immediately loop back and land at LAX – which is what I assume most of us passengers expected him to do. We passengers don’t know about maximum landing weights or things of that sort, nor do we know what is involved in dumping fuel, and how long it might take - so a bit of explanation wouldn't have gone amiss.

That said, if things were as hectic in the cockpit as I suspect they might have been (monitoring the aircraft, checking weather, checking manuals, liaising with engineers on the ground), I can at least partially forgive him for devoting his time to more pressing issues than keeping us passengers informed.

All in all, this was a pretty dramatic flight, and not one that I would care to repeat any time soon, but it hasn’t put me off flying BA – in fact I’m flying to Baltimore with them next week. I will however be interested to see the final report into this incident if it’s ever made public (particularly given that the same plane had a problem with the replacement engine in the same position, only a few days after our flight – so there is at least a suspicion of a fault with something other than the engine itself).

Posted by: BA268passenger | Mar 11, 2005 10:49:23 AM


I understand your concerns here, and I also have to say that it is reassuring to hear that someone takes such a responsible view of their own career (especially when it could be life or death for the "customer"). However, as a Brit, and a long time customer of British Airways, I have to add that these issues are not unique to that airline. There have been similar incidents with US carriers, not to mention plenty of other lapses which were largely caused by the joint desires for operational efficiency and maximizing profits (or, at the moment, as you quite topically suggest, minimizing losses!!).

This new ruling in Europe is ridiculous and will put all European operators under inappropriate and unacceptable pressure. Personally I hope it is repealed very quickly and before it leads to a major disaster, however, one has to ask, how many of us would willingly take the 600 Euros compensation in the event of a delay? If we would then I think we should perhaps examine our individual conscience to see where the real responsibility lies for such a ruling.

Refreshing to see some considered debate on the web.


Posted by: Dave Felton | Mar 7, 2005 1:46:50 AM

While this news upsets me and makes me doubt the sanity of British Airways, it should be noted that a British Airways jet actually stayed in the air and flew thousands of miles with a dead engine - twice.

The real trick to flying with a dead engine is to ensure that the next engine failure happens on the other side of the fusilage.

Or to quote Douglas Adams, "The trick to flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss".

Posted by: tward | Mar 5, 2005 1:30:01 PM

Thanks for the story. I fly to Britain on BA in two weeks. Yeah, thanks a lot...

Posted by: ScienceChic | Mar 5, 2005 12:04:58 AM

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