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British Airways Keeps A "Stiff Upper Lip"

The Wall Street Journal reports on a little know incident from last year where a British Airways 747 from Los Angeles to London made nearly the whole flight with only three of its four engines.

A few seconds after a fully loaded British Airways 747 took off from Los Angeles on its way to London last year, one of its four engines erupted in a spectacular nighttime burst of flame.

The fire burned out quickly, but the controversy has continued to smolder.

An air-traffic controller watching the runways radioed a warning to British Airways Flight 268 and assumed the plane would quickly turn around. To controllers' surprise, the pilots checked with their company and then flew on, hoping to "get as far as we can," as the captain told the control tower. The jumbo jet ultimately traveled more than 5,000 miles with a dead engine before making an emergency landing in Manchester, England, as the crew worried about running out of fuel.

The Los Angeles air-traffic-control tapes, obtained by The Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act, show that controllers who saw the fiery engine failure with the jet just 296 feet in the air were immediately concerned about the flight and ready to guide it back to the airport. But the decision to return or keep flying rested with the captain and the airline. Ever since, pilots and aviation regulators have debated the decision of the pilots and British Airways. Their questions: Even if the plane was capable of reaching its destination, and perhaps legal to fly, was it smart to try? And was it safe?

Whether you agree or disagree with the pilots decision, can you imagine being a passenger on that flight and witnessing the fire, only to find out you were going to "push on" in spite of the fire?

Comments (18)

I had always thought that '... (Below threshold)

I had always thought that 'err on the side of caution' was the One True God of aviation safety policy.

British Airways appears to be an exception.

WTF? The 7-4-7 is ... (Below threshold)


The 7-4-7 is an amazing craft. She is quite capable of making the trip on 3 engines... but the 4th was on freaking fire! Fire! What if it flared up and took out a fuel line?

Not to mention (as the story says) you burn fuel like mad flying on 3 (and you stress very expensive engines)if they had to dodge bad weather they could have easily run shy OVER THE OCEAN!

Whoever made this decision needs to be as far from civil aviation as regulators can get them.

and WTF was the pilot thinking. He's ass is on the line too. Amazing.

The airline was thinking "I... (Below threshold)

The airline was thinking "If we ground this plane, then what?" It's not like they're Southwest and can simply send another plane over from Dallas or Phoenix. They made a decision based, probably, more on economics than anything else.

If I were on that plane, whether as a member of the crew or as a passenger, my knuckles would be white the whole flight.

I'd like to get an opinion ... (Below threshold)

I'd like to get an opinion from an actual 747 pilot (or more) before I knee jerk a reaction.

I just cut up my British Ai... (Below threshold)

I just cut up my British Airways FF card.

I'm sure that - four hours after the burn - someone had figured out the fuel useage rate as they crossed the US Atlantic coast, heading East. Knowing that they could probably make Manchester as long as the winds don't shift, BA, the Olympic Airline, said "what the hell, go for it."

They would point out, I'm sure, that the margin of error was there - at no time did they have to drop to 10,000 feet and jettison excess weight.

Who are we to question the judgement of these brave men?

FAA investigation paperwork avoided once again.

That would fairly well be m... (Below threshold)

That would fairly well be my last flight with BAW. Reminiscent though it seems of the British National Healthcare System...

Its like taking a trip with... (Below threshold)

Its like taking a trip with my father!

"We're not stopping till we get there!

I think that it's important... (Below threshold)

I think that it's important that the final decisions remain in the pilot's hands. After all, he is the one on board, in control, and utterly responsible. No one on the ground can judge, in the moment, better than the pilot can. For that reason, I hope that this incident is not used as yet another pretext for limitation of pilots' autonomy in control of their ships.

That said, it gives me the willies that the pilot checked with his company. There were three good decisions: turn around and land (what I would have done), continue to a nearby city (say, Dallas or Chicago) that has a company plane or maintenance facility, or land at the nearest suitable airport to the coast, meanwhile flying in a replacement airframe. The pilot made none of these decisions, and in the course of that may well have endangered his passengers' lives. (I can't say for sure; I don't have all the relevant information.) If he did so, his license should be pulled. If he did so at the demand of his company, that company's charter should be under serious review.

C'mon folks. Pilot makes a ... (Below threshold)

C'mon folks. Pilot makes a decision after consulting with home base after an in-flight emergency. Nothing mysterious, unethical or bizarre about that. Its SOP. Now whether to press on or go back was wise, you also have to consider whether its smart to try to land with only three engines in a heavy plane loaded with fuel immediately, or burn down (or dump) your fuel. If they were going to burn it off before landing, might as well head East and make your landing decision as you monitor fuel consumption and conditions as you fly over the continental US.

Seems to me everyone did their job well and all the panic and distrust listed above inappropriate.

I am a former airline pilot... (Below threshold)

I am a former airline pilot. I also consulted with a current licensed airline dispatcher for this response.

Believe it or not this flight was legal. In a 4 engine airplane you are required to proceed to the nearest "suitable airport" for landing. That being said, this incident showed an incredible lack of judgment both on the part of the flight crew and the company.

The only regulation that they might have violated was they did not have enough fuel on board to make it to their original destination, fly to their alternate airport and hold for 45 minutes.

If I remember correctly, su... (Below threshold)

If I remember correctly, such a flight would have been a standard part of qualifying the plane for passenger service. That it could make a flight of its range with only 3 of 4 engines. That is part of why they have multi-engine planes. Not just for the power, but the redundancy makes them safer. Of course part of the idea is that if an eninge failed over the Atlantic, the plane could make it. Flying on 3 engines, if another engine failed over the Atlantic, things could have been quite dicey.

There is also the question of any additional damage the fire could have caused. I suspect the built in fire suppression worked quickly to put out the fire, but that doesn't mean that other damage couldn't have occurred.

I had a colleague who flew on a flight to Hawaii. An engine fell off (as in bye bye) of the plane. The plane continued on to Hawaii. Same concept. The plane was built to be able to do that, so even though it reduced safety margins, it would be prudent to wonder why the engine caught fire/fell off, and wonder what other damage is involved, the decision is similar to your driving above the speed limit on the little replacement tire.

My two cents:This ... (Below threshold)

My two cents:

This situation comes down to three basic things: probabilities, math, and location. All three things, IMHO, must be taken collectively in order for the Captain to make a "go/no-go" decision.

* Probability: given the flight crew's knowledge of the event, how likely was it to further endanger the airframe (and by extension, passengers)?

* Math: in this case, a relatively simple equation. Given the flight was at full load, and that flying on three engines would require those engines to be run at a much higher (and much less economical) thrust, the flight crew should have quickly been able to calculate required fuel load to complete the remaining flight, within the operator's SOP for error margin (e.g., wind direction & speed changes, storm avoidance, etc.)

* Location: where did the event occur? This is the one that is most telling. As others have noted, pilots have often proceeded on the journey after experiencing in-flight events such as engine problems. Had the plane been flying somewhere over the Atlantic at the time of the event, I could perfectly well understand the decision to keep going. But to have that event occur right at takeoff, when the flight path allowed them to put down at several major CONUS-based airports BEFORE flying over open ocean, IMHO, was beyond risky. It was foolhardy.

So the event occurs right at takeoff, and the flight path takes the plane over land for its first ~3,000 miles of the journey, and the pilots were (as it were) "checking the fuel gauge" like a teenager whose tank is on "E" and he doesn't know how far the car will go before it runs out of gas. Oh, and to follow that analogy, he keeps doing it after he passes the last gas station before driving through a desert.

Taken together, if I had been on that plane, I would have b*tched long and loud for the flight crew putting my life in danger for nothing more than to make their schedule.

This reminds me of the Alas... (Below threshold)

This reminds me of the Alaska Air flight that crashed off of LA while the crew tried to fix the problem in mid-flight so they could get to their primary destination - rather than landing right away.

When you roll the dice, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

Why did they press on in a ... (Below threshold)

Why did they press on in a B-747??? Simple...It was not an Airbus

If you're talking about AA ... (Below threshold)

If you're talking about AA Flight 261, the crew were not trying to 'fix the problem in mid-flight,' they were struggling to regain control of an airplane on which the horizontal stabilizer had broken free from its jackscrew. They failed.

NTSB report:


I've heard stories of the o... (Below threshold)
John S:

I've heard stories of the old Soviet airlines crossing the Atlantic with only 3 engines operable. Of course they also used to navigate using auto road maps. The advantage the Soviet airlines had was that air crashes were state secrets and vehemently denied. (Didn't want to admit anything amiss in the communist paradise.) Basically the crew and passengers never existed.

On the other hand, this action by a western airline is appalling.

The entry about the Alaska ... (Below threshold)
Bob J.:

The entry about the Alaska Airlines flight is somewhat irrelevant as it was a 2-engine airplane with mechanical problems that were not engine related.

Now, with respect to an engine failure on any 3 or 4-engine airplane, the Code of Federal Regulations, 14 CFR, Chapter 1, Subchapter G, Part 121, Subpart U, Sec. 121.565 (b), clearly allows the Captain of U.S. airlines to continue to "...an airport he selects if, after considering the following, he decides that proceeding to that airport is as safe as landing at the nearest suitable airport:
(1) The nature of the malfunction and the possible mechanical difficulties that may occur if flight is continued.
(2) The altitude, weight, and usable fuel at the time of engine stoppage.
(3) The weather conditions en route and at possible landing points.
(4) The air traffic congestion.
(5) The kind of terrain.
(6) His familiarity with the airport to be used."

The key words "as safe as" give the Flight Crew the authority to take that airplane to any airport they choose once they have decided "that proceeding to that airport is as safe as landing at the nearest suitable airport."

Anyone who understands what happens following an engine failure knows that the British Airways Pilots would need to fly circles over the Pacific Ocean, off the California coast, "dumping" 100,000+ pounds of jet fuel into the atmosphere in order to get the airplane within its maximum allowable landing weight, for a return to Los Angeles.

Additionally, I have little doubt that the people most concerned about this whole "continuing on with only 3 engines" situation are the same people who book reservations or use their frequent flier miles to fly to Europe or fly to Hawaii on TWO-ENGINE AIRPLANES! Do the math: if you're on a 4-engine airplane and one of the engines fails, you have 3 engines left- just order another cocktail and continue watching the movie, but if you only start with 2 engines and you "lose" 1 of them, maybe you should order several cocktails and make sure that life vest (the one nobody ever looks for) really is under your seat. Think about it, and remember to take your seat cushion to use as a "portable flotation device" before jumping into the water!

If the flight to Hawaii ref... (Below threshold)
john b:

If the flight to Hawaii referred to by the other John, during which an engine and the outer third of the wing dropped off after catching fire, was the one around 1960-61, his information is incorrect. That plane landed emergently at Travis AFB. Another plane was dispatched there to pick up those passengers willing to continue the trip by air.






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