Flames from Airplane Engine

Q: A friend of mine was aboard a plane when a tongue of flame came spurting from an engine during takeoff. The passengers began shouting and a flight attendant radioed the cockpit. The plane lifted off, then dropped back to the ground and came to a stop. I shudder to think what might have happened had they’d continued. Doesn’t a plane need all of its engines running full-bore for takeoff?

This question so nicely illustrates some rather blatant PEF, or Passenger Embellishment Factor, the phenomenon that accompanies so many (usually second or third-hand) accounts of discontinued takeoffs, aborted landings, assumed near-misses and the like. Though not a witness to the “tongue of flame” and the follow-up actions of this crew, I have my hunches:

If the pilots discontinued this particular departure, they did so because they became aware of some kind of engine anomaly during the acceleration. However, this would have taken place before liftoff. Flight attendants will not “radio” the cockpit (actually there’s a phone) while screaming down the runway, and no pilot would answer such a call as the jet is nearing takeoff speed. I cannot believe the plane became airborne and then touched down again. Although it has happened, no pilot is trained this way. Decelerating and stopping at that point is often much more dangerous than continuing the flight, even with an emergency.

And despite the impressive roar of the engines and spine-straightening acceleration, airplanes rarely take off at “full bore.” They instead use a predetermined thrust setting, typically some degree below the maximum output of the engines, based on various conditions. The exact amount of thrust is usually fine-tuned by a computer. Regardless, all airliners are certified to depart and climb after suffering an engine failure at the most critical point in the takeoff roll.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.