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March 11, 2005

'Crossing the Atlantic on a Dead Engine' - Part II


Last Friday evening, March 4, I finished bookofjoe for the day with a long, detailed account of the journey of British Airways Flight 268, which left Los Angeles on Friday evening, February 19 with 351 passengers aboard, bound nonstop for London's Heathrow Airport.

Long story short: the plane lost an engine on takeoff but attempted to make the trip on its three remaining engines, coming close but ultimately having to declare "Mayday" and make an emergency landing at Manchester (U.K.) Airport.

Today, a passenger who was aboard that very flight and became aware of my blog entry posted a comment about his experience and that of his wife, who was traveling with him.

He wrote an account filled with fascinating details I've not read nor heard of in any media report.

The story is riveting, so unique and well-written I believe the New York Times would have published it as on Op-Ed piece.

This is by far the most interesting and informative account I've yet seen of the events of that singular flight.

Here, then, is the unedited, unabridged story of "BA268passenger":

    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).

March 11, 2005 at 04:43 PM | Permalink


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Since posting my original reply to Joe’s article, and seeing xavi’s reply, I’ve done a bit more research and had a few more thoughts regarding this incident and other related issues.

For about the first hour of this flight, I felt extremely anxious (despite being someone who is not easily stressed), and it did occur to me to use the in-seat telephone to ring our daughters with a message along the lines of: “I don’t want to worry you … but … just in case we don’t make it, you’ll find my will in the filing cabinet in my study ….”. I didn’t actually make the call, but I was at least tempted to do it. I wonder how many people on that flight did actually make such a call. Of course, as the flight progressed for the next several hours, seemingly without incident, I felt calmer, and was glad I hadn’t worried them unnecessarily. Even with the last-minute diversion to Manchester my anxiety levels didn’t rise high enough to cause me to make the call.

On a slightly different note, I did a bit of research into flying 747s with less than four engines (although I am no expert – so I am relying on what I read being true). In airliners.net I found a figure of 29000 feet as being the optimum altitude on three engines and 18700 feet as being the likely max flying altitude of a heavily loaded 747 on two engines (rising to about 27000 feet as the plane burnt fuel and hence became lighter). I understand from the comments of several 747 pilots I have read on various forums that flying a 747 on 3 engines is not particularly hard – especially when it is one of the inner engines that has failed – only a small rudder adjustment is needed to keep the aeroplane straight (although taking off on three engines is another matter entirely). Flying on two engines is obviously much harder than three or four, but still possible – even if both engines fail on the same side. For example, I have read about an incident on a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Sydney on 24 February 1989. A cargo door flew off, taking part of the fuselage (and unfortunately 9 passengers) with it. This destroyed one of the engines and badly damaged the other engine on the same wing. Despite have a hole in the fuselage and only about two and a half engines, the crew managed to land the plane at Honolulu.

In many ways (unless the loss of the engine on our flight was caused by a problem with something other than the engine itself, or it had itself caused damage to some other part of the aircraft when it failed - for which I await the official report for answers) we were not much worse off with three engines on our 747 than a 777 would have been with the two engines it started off with. If one of the engines fails on a 777, you are immediately down to a situation very similar to losing both engines on the same wing of a 747 – and yet the FAA and the airlines seem perfectly happy to allow a 777 to fly across the Pacific, where it can be as much as 3 hours from an airport. On our flight, by comparison, we still had three functioning engines, and were never more than two hours from a possible landing strip (in the USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland or England).

One incident I read of in a 777 (see answers.com) concerned another United flight across the Pacific (on 17 March 2003). One engine failed and the plane flew for over three hours (192 minutes) on the one remaining engine to get to the nearest airport. This to me suggests that even if we lost the other engine on the port wing, we still had a pretty good chance of coming out of the incident alive. Of course, one difference between these incidents was that the United flight had no option but to fly for three hours on it’s one remaining engine, whereas our captain made the choice to continue with “only” three engines.

Posted by: BA268passenger | Mar 12, 2005 9:15:48 AM

Indeed, this may happen more often than we realize.

I was on a flight from Tokyo to Chicago about ten years ago. Eight hours into the flight I looked outside and we were flying rather low and still over the Pacific, when we should have been somewhere over Manitoba. About 1/2 hour later the pilot informed us that we lost an engine at take-off and that he was mulling whether we should land in Anchorage or try to push on to San Francisco, a major hub for this airline.

For no reason, other than to maybe prove Edward Gorey's point that "Life is boring and dangerous at the same time," we droned on for the next five hours to make it safely to San Francisco.

Posted by: Jxn | Mar 12, 2005 5:34:38 AM

Thanks, BA268passenger and thanks Joe!

Quite an interesting letter. I fly often and I find my reactions and behavior would probably have mirrored that of BA268passenger. In fact, I found it uncanny.

I don't at this point share Joe's view expressed earlier that BA needed to land right away. When one gets as risk averse as it is fashionable in the U.S. nowadays, soon you are doing nothing but CYA.

However, I'd like for a 747 instructor or engineer to explain:
1. When low on fuel... is "nose-up" a factor on tank drainage? One would think not!
2. What's the real impact on ceiling altitude of losing 1 engine? 2? We're told BA had to stay under 30K ft b/c of this.
3. What other limits of the flight envelope are most impacted by the 1 engine shutdown? 2? 3? 4?
4. We know BA 747s have flown on 3 engines (at least once in 2002, plus 2 known 2005 events). Is there an industry-wide statistic?

Posted by: xavi | Mar 12, 2005 12:49:38 AM

The same plane flew from Singapore to Heathrow on 3 engines, as the replacement engine failed in a similar manner after takeoff. Very scary. Try not to take that plane again, I'd say.

Posted by: Mattp9 | Mar 11, 2005 9:22:43 PM

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