A British Airways flight was forced to return to Las Vegas because of an engine fire. Though in this period in which the analysis of masses of airline data allows the airlines and the FAA to focus forward, this is one event that merits looking and history and noting that the past improvements worked here. As always even this relatively positive accident provides some things meriting more work.
Airplane accidents provide a teachable moment; as with much in life, we learn more from our failures than our successes. The NTSB has announced that it will thoroughly investigate the engine fire which occurred on a British Airways Flight 2276 flying a B-777-200 from Las Vegas to Gatwick. GE has issued a statement that “the GE90 -85B is among the world’s most reliable engines.”
Here’s what is reported as the sequence of events:
- ‘According to the flight crew, as the throttles were advanced for takeoff, an unusual noise and vibration was heard on the left side of the airplane.’
- ‘The captain, who was the non-flying pilot, initially commented that it might be the runway surface grooving. As the ground speed increased, all engine parameters appeared normal and the takeoff proceeded.’
- However, once the aircraft was airborne, the flight crew were warned of a ‘LH Engine Vibration – Level 5’.
- As the aircraft reached 1,500 feet, the crew noticed a ‘haze’ in the cockpit. At 4,000 feet, the flight crew donned their oxygen masks.
- The cabin crew warned the flight deck that they heard a ‘loud noise from the left hand side of the airplane’ and the cabin was filling with smoke.
- ‘The flightcrew reduced thrust on the left engine and decided to make an immediate overweight landing at Houston.’
- The crew also declared an emergency and landed safely.
- The 114 passengers and 15 crew all escaped the aircraft safely following the emergency landing.
- A thorough examination of the engine discovered that one of the turbine blades had failed. The NTSB issued a warning.
So how can there be any good news when a plane has to abort its takeoff? Start with the fact that an engine fire was contained with none of the 170 passengers and 15 crewmembers seriously injured or hurt by that conflagration (27 passengers were taken to a hospital, treated and immediately released due to injuries suffered during the emergency escape).
From an aircraft design and airworthiness perspective, the systems that contained the fire were added in response to a 1985 British Airtours flight in which the engine flames were not contained and all 55 passengers and crew died. There the Aviation Accident Investigation Board recommended:
- more fire retardant materials
- allowing more space for evacuation routes
- parking and evacuating the plane immediately on the runway
- keeping the blaze downwind of the fuselage where possible
- distributing the most experienced crew members throughout the plane to aid evacuation
Those proposals were accepted and implemented. Further, as new aircraft were designed, new safety measures were added. The B-777-200/ GE90-85B combination includes fire handle in the cockpit which signals that an engine is on fire; the cockpit crew checks to determine which engine and then the handle is pulled. With the pulling of that lever the fuel tank is shut off and all of the electrics and hydraulics, potential sources for ignition, are eliminated. The high tech titanium and nacelles are there to contain any fire. Other improvements to the engine control systems add to the margin of safety.
The Guardian should be commended for its research of this detailed record of what contributed to this being an accident and not a disaster.