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Losing an Engine: A Personal Experience

Four engines, three engines; divert or continue on? Our thanks, for want of a better term, to British Airways, whose recent double-dose of mechanical trouble provided two straight weeks of stimulating column fodder. To close things out, I’ve chosen to share a personal account of something that happened about four years ago. Hopefully this offers some first-hand insight into the kind of event that, as a cut-and-dry news blurb, provokes more questions than it answers.

I was third in command, the flight engineer, on a four-engine freighter jet flying from Ohio to Belgium. It was a cloudless April morning over northern Maine, and I’d just finished heating the eggs and emptying the trash — which after three-plus years had come to seem the sole point and purpose of my job — when the fire alarm rang for the number three engine. Imagine a bell, with the volume and tenor of a dozen Big Ben alarm clocks. Imagine coffee everywhere.

Almost immediately, even faster than you’d slam your palm down on one of those infernal Big Bens at 5 a.m., the bell stopped. The three of us, suddenly owl-eyed and zoomed with adrenaline, stared momentarily at the instruments, then at each other. Fire? Yes? No?

Then a panel light began to blink. The light told us that one of the number three engine’s fire detection circuits had fallen off line. Except only possibly was it off line, since the bulb is supposed to illuminate steadily, but in our case was flashing erratically, as if it couldn’t make up its mind. About ten seconds later, and to our considerable consternation, the bell commenced its hideous clamoring again. And this time it didn’t stop, not until the captain hit the cut-out silencer, killing the bell while its accompanying red annunciator — FIRE — continued to burn brightly.

At hand were two indications, either an aggravating contradiction or a perfect accord, depending you saw it: that of a fire alarm, and that of a flickering light saying the fire alarm might be broken.

Truth be known, we also had a third indication. Owing to preflight perusal of the maintenance log, a routine nearly as important as ensuring enough Diet Coke, omelets and roasted chicken were stocked in the galley, we knew the very same fire detector had, on a recent prior occasion, malfunctioned, touching off a faulty alarm. (Making nothing easier, each engine has two detectors, and the second one, the gauges told us, was working fine.)

So, cutting to the chase, it was probable, though in no way provable, that the fire alarm was dubious. Unfortunately, in the world of big league flying, and especially when fires are in play, probable doesn’t cut it.

We now introduce the captain — a tall, bearish fellow who tended not to say a lot; the kind of guy whose softspoken demeanor never quite offsets a commanding, borderline intimidating physical presence. He stared intently for a moment, fingered his heavy mustache, then spoke in a raised whisper. “Oh, fucking fuck,” is what he said.

“Engine fire checklist,” came the order, as I grabbed the yellow card from its holster. And promptly the three of us, snapping into well-rehearsed roles, commenced the weird ballet of the inflight emergency shutdown. We put number three to bed with the snap and click of cutoff levers, generator switches, and a good-night spray of the halon bottle.

The red FIRE bulb ceased to glow and there were no further bells.

Then it was time to land.

Or not. After securing the disorderly motor we consulted our airline’s dispatch team via radio. Convinced the warning had been illegitimate, company tech staff basically left the choice between continuing or diverting up to us.

Had we opted to keep flying, first order would have been several minutes of poring over onboard charts to ensure we’d have adequate fuel for a three-engine Atlantic crossing. High-altitude air is thin, and with less available power and heavy gross weight, we’d be restricted to a lower than planned cruising level, increasing overall burn. Certain aerodynamic factors also intensify fuel consumption: that disabled powerplant is now hanging out there like a great round sail, and because the engine is not on the fuselage centerline, it results in a torquing force that wants to yaw the aircraft sideways. This is offset by trimming the plane’s rudder and ailerons to hold opposite force. Loosely put, the plane is now flying slightly crooked, causing greater drag and, in turn, drinking even more fuel.

Back at headquarters, company personnel would crunch these same numbers before allowing us to proceed.

Weather too would be scrutinized. Brussels-National is often plagued by late-night fog, so the reports for nearby diversion points — like Cologne, Paris, Amsterdam, and London — would be no less important. Regardless of how many engines are working, alternate landing spots must adhere to very specific minimum ceiling and visibility forecasts, bearing in mind that while a three-engine landing is relatively effortless, a three-engine missed approach (aborted landing), is less fun. Throw a serious crosswind, icy runway, and any additional malfunctions onto the palette, and the picture is even dicier.

Maybe that sounds complicated, and to some degree it is. To be totally frank, however, pilots itch for such occasions. That’s how I saw it, anyway — the rote tedium of preparing omelets and doodling in the margins of the flight plan at long last arrogated by something exciting, dammit. Not dangerous, mind you, but challenging and, should all go smoothly (which it would), rewarding. There’s a tired adage that describes the pilot’s career as interminable stretches of boredom punctuated by rare split seconds of sheer terror. And who needs that? More to our liking are the cushy quasi-emergencies like that of a sputtered-out turbofan; the occasional crackle of the laminated checklist and the need to blow dust off some seldom consulted charts. Of the layperson’s assumptions about commercial flight, few are more annoying than the one that needlessly ties an increase in a pilot’s pulse with an increase in danger. Situations vary, but because a given mission is workload intensive and demanding of concentration — whether dealing with a wayward engine or making a wind-whipped approach to a stubby runway at Washington-Reagan — that doesn’t, by definition, make it unsafe. To Brussels on three? The plane can do it, and so can I. I’m ready, willing, and not the least bit scared.

Except, for better or worse, pilots aren’t paid to get their kicks. They’re paid to fly the path of least resistance; to keep everyone alive and everything intact with an absolute minimum of fuss and worry.

Which is why, after a quick and unanimous vote of 3-0, we turned and went to Bangor.

Had this been a precautionary shutdown owed to errant oil pressure or some other innocuous glitch, and with the somewhat grudging approval of the Federal Aviation Regulations — see FAR 121.565(b), transcribed here last week — I trust we’d have been perfectly comfortable to aim our 300,000 pounds of aluminum, freight, and fuel, toward the Bay of Fundy, Newfoundland, and beyond.

But it wasn’t an oil pressure problem. Our hunches about the spurious detector would later be proved correct, but at the time there was no way of knowing if we’d suffered an actual fire. And, if so, there were no guarantees it hadn’t caused unseen damage or, worse still, wouldn’t again spark to life.

This is a good moment, I think, for a look at the scene of the crime. Here’s a photo of my former office, the second officer’s workstation on the exact bird in my story.

If it looks ruefully antiquated, that’s because it is. This was a jet conceived by the engineers at Douglas when General Eisenhower still had hair, with a cockpit resembling the bridge of a ’50s era Soviet submarine. (The odd blue cylinder in the lower left corner is my $1.25 flashlight from Brooks Pharmacy, bandaged together with silver duct tape.)

“Have you ever lost an engine?” is a query I’m sometimes hit with. The question is a mildly perplexing one, since the specter of failed engines is often first on flyer’s minds, yet, as I hope you’re learning, generally not hazardous. Now you know the answer. Yes, once, sort of.

Or twice, if you choose to see it that way: In preparing this article I remembered something from a very long time ago. Winter, 1982 to be precise, though being only a sophomore in high school I’m speaking from a passenger’s point of view. I was flying with my mother and grandmother from Seattle to Tokyo in a Northwest 747 — or, as it was still then known, Northwest Orient — when number two fell victim to the proverbial “warning light,” to quote the captain. Now you have some idea what those bromidic excuses might mean. Whatever was broken, it forced a diversion to Anchorage, causing us to miss a planned onward connection to Hong Kong.

Twenty years later, off it was to Bangor, causing us to miss a planned midnight beer at Conway’s on Avenue de la Toison.

Though first came the matter of those 300,000 pounds, which were 50,000 too many for a legal landing.

Expelling all that gas would take the better part of half an hour. Back to another checklist and deployment of a dump chute, concealed behind a panel in the bottom of the wing. From the flight deck, there’s no indication of the offload other than the lazily unwinding digits on the quantity gauges. There’s nothing to see from the window, though it was hard not to imagine a certain caricature — that of a hapless plane with a huge contrail of dollar bills furrowing behind it. (Small change for an airline, overall, and the spray would dissipate and evaporate long before reaching the ground, but the experience of dumping fuel, I learned, just feels wrong on every level.) At the bottom of the photograph you can see a series of odd black and white handles, which supervise the movement of fuel between eight main tanks. Trying to disgorge all that liquid, while at the same time keeping the tank quantities even, with a dead engine to boot, had me working those levers like a guy playing a pipe organ.

Thus our ecological and economic contributions to the state of Maine that spring morning became 7,500 gallons of jet fuel set loose high over Baxter State Park, and three extra bookings at the Bangor airport Hilton, where the breakfast buffet, we’d find out the following day, doesn’t hold a candle to its namesake property in Brussels. We landed safely around 10 a.m. No emergency was declared; no phalanx of fire engines awaited us.

For the record, had our jet been a factory-fresh 747 or A340 instead of a Cold War hand-me-down, things would have unfolded more or less identically, howbeit with the help of fancier gizmos and a little less multitasking. Better technology; same results.

Except, presume for a moment the plane had been loaded with 300 vacationers and not, as it happened, 18 oversized cargo pallets. Imagine the tension and nervous bustle as passengers assume the worst, sketching out wills on the backs of barf-bags, sneaking cell phone calls to loved ones.

Up front, the crew isn’t thinking about death. They’re thinking about that lost buffet, the task of extra paperwork, and how, no matter how many public address announcements the captain makes, and how many reassurances he provides, people still won’t believe it.

All in a morning’s work.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.