Three-engine 747 oceanic crossing cause for concern

 - October 16, 2006, 12:04 PM

I have been following some of the discussion about the February flight of a British Airways 747-400 from Los Angeles to London after one of the airplane’s engines failed on takeoff. In addition to statements from the FAA, much has been written about this event, both in the aviation press and on the Internet, particularly among pilots and the academic community. Most of the pilot discussions support the British Airways crew’s decision to continue the flight on three engines.

As I understand it, the flight was taking off from Los Angeles International Airport. Just after liftoff, when the airplane was at approximately 100 feet, the tower notified the crew that controllers had seen a shower of sparks coming from one engine. The crew continued the climbout and throttled back the affected engine.

The engine continued to operate at high temperatures, so the crew shut it down in accordance with procedures. Soon after, the crew was notified that debris had been found on the departure runway. It has also been reported that the crew was in discussions with British Airways operations control about what actions to take. During this period the crew was busy flying the aircraft, which is job one, though the accident history has shown that this sometimes gets lost in the concerns about the problem, with disastrous results.

The decision was made to continue to the destination. All seemed to progress as planned until the crew requested an emergency landing in Manchester, England, 160 miles from London, because of low fuel. I have not seen reports indicating how low the fuel level would have to be to necessitate an emergency landing.

Much of the published discussion seems to focus on the aircraft’s ability to fly some 5,000 miles on three engines. There is no doubt that this is easily accomplished with today’s powerful engines and extremely high reliability. However, there is more to consider in this event than the engines’ reliability.

It is also clear that the crew and British Airways believed they could fly the 5,000 miles with 351 souls and some cargo on board. The airline even issued statements defending itself against criticism that the crew continued the flight to prevent the airline’s having to compensate passengers, as is now required under European regulations.

The press continued to write about the decision-making process that led this crew to attempt to fly to its destination. My concern is that the corporate culture of the airlines has allowed increased risk to become the norm. I thought of the Alaska Airlines accident off the California coast in which the crew spent much time troubleshooting the horizontal stabilizer trim motor in flight rather than landing and troubleshooting on the ground. During all of the discussion in the news media about the BA 747 incident, the airline’s communications staff stuck to the line of response thatfocused on the aircraft’s ability to fly satisfactorily on three or even two engines. Although technically correct, this is not the real issue to my way of thinking.

Addressing an Engine Failure

The shower of sparks from one of the engines and the high operating temperatures when the power was brought back alerted the crew that they were dealing with either a contained or an uncontained engine failure. At this point it was not possible for them to determine from the cockpit instruments the type of failure.

With today’s modern communications gear it is possible for an operations center half a world away to see what the pilots’ instruments are showing, and more. However, it was not possible for anyone to determine accurately the amount of potential damage,either internally or externally, that had occurred when that engine failed.

There are a number of potential negative outcomes from damage inside a turbine engine that require the crew to land as soon as possible. The same is true for an engine failure that is uncontained. There are just too many possible failures caused by the high-speed ejection of engine parts to continue past a suitable landing location. Let’s not forget that even if the crew went back into the cabin to look at the engine, not all of the powerplant is visible and the potential for hidden damage is real.

Uncertainty adds risk, and in this particular case–a long flight with a large portion over water–the added risk was huge. Simply stated, there is absolutely no reason for a professional flight crew to accept this additional risk and put so many in harm’s way. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is safe. We are there to make decisions in the interest of safety, not economic outcomes. Our passengers trust us to operate with the highest integrity. I do not believe that the decisions made during this flight are examples of the highest form of integrity that the traveling public has come to expect from all of us in aviation.