MIAMI – On Saturday, February 20, United Airlines (UA) flight 328 suffered an engine failure while climbing out of Denver, Colorado. A large section of fan blade measuring over three feet long and weighing in excess of thirty pounds separated from its mount as an apparent result of metal fatigue, causing havoc within the engine’s armored containment ring.
Most sensationally, the violence of the failure catastrophically damaged the engine’s outer cowls, raining debris over the countryside. While engine failures of this type are extremely rare, pilots do train for them routinely. But what does an incident like this mean to airline pilots, and how does it relate to the customers who trust us with their lives every time they set foot on one of our jets?
“Engine fire, number one!”
Rolling down the runway, the wheels rhythmically thumping along the pavement, I feel myself tensing in my seat, gently pushing my heels against the bases of the rudder pedals. “Which one’s it going to be this time?” I think to myself. “Vee one!” calls my sim partner. The time to safely stop the airplane on the runway has come and gone; whatever happens, from now on, we’re committed to flying.
“Rotate!” I gently pull back on the control column, eyes scanning for cues, feet ready on the rudder like a ballplayer at the plate, waiting for his pitch. Bang! The airplane shudders and lurches left, followed almost instantaneously by the bright yellow and red flashes of warning lights. I shove the right rudder pedal almost to the floor.
“Engine fire, number one!” my partner shouts, his voice nearly drowned out by the fire bell. The next few sentences out of my mouth are rote; straight from the book. They’re instructions that tell the non-flying pilot precisely what I want him to do in order to ensure we continue to climb safely away, and he’s expecting them to come out in a familiar cadence.
Landing gear up, speeds set, autopilot on… and please, punch off that fire bell! Our EICAS, the system which diagnoses and displays color-coded information about the health of our airplane, has become a rainbow waterfall of messages. Now, safely in the air, we can begin the process of working the problem, systematically untangling the hornet’s nest before us.
The Emotional Response
You never know just how you’re going to handle a genuine emergency. While our training is effective and realistic, you’re still, in effect, in on the joke. Stepping into the simulator for your annual recurrent training, you know something bad is bound to happen. The night before, you probably spent a couple of hours over dinner going through the book, refreshing yourself on flight profiles, command callouts, and the locations of various emergency checklists within the QRH: the quick reaction handbook.
Intellectually, however, you know something’s coming, and you also know you can’t really get hurt. While your physical reactions will be identical to how you’d handle a real emergency situation, I’ve found there is simply no way to prepare yourself for the emotional response.
Some of the best advice I ever got learning to fly was “always be surprised when you take off without issue.” In other words, plan for and expect the worst, and steel yourself for what’s about to happen, every single time. That way, when the nose comes up and the gear hits the well without issue, you’ll have been prepared and ready, only to be pleasantly surprised when your takeoff is just another routine climb towards the heavens.
Fortunately, it’s not as exhausting as it sounds, and, for me, it paid off in spades one hot summer day over Cape Cod.
Returning from an Island Vacation
Climbing through the cloud layer, the propellors of my twin-engine Cessna struggled to bite into the hot, thin air. Behind me, I had a full load of besandled passengers returning from an island vacation; in front of me were hundreds of pounds of luggage. I had just set the autopilot and settled back in my chair, systematically scanning the sky for VFR traffic (weekend warriors in their Cirruses still cause me a specific feeling of consternation).
And that’s when number two, my right-hand engine, decided to call it quits. It started as a burble, just enough to get my attention. I brought my eyes back inside the cockpit and focused on the engine gauges, simultaneously moving my hand to the power levers. These engines could be finicky, and I wasn’t unaccustomed to placating their occasionally peculiar temperament.
The increasing frequency of bangs and grumbles emanating from just beyond the thin aluminum sides of my airplane, however, belied something less routine, and as the needles on my engine gauges kicked and tumbled, I found myself dealing with a much larger issue.
Unlike bigger, transport-category airplanes, the smaller “props” I flew early in my career weren’t actually required to be able to continue climbing on one engine. As my dying motor coughed and shook, I found myself faced with a very simple decision: try to keep it running and watch as it dragged my airplane over, or shut it down, flatten the propellor blades to the wind, and cut my losses.
Fortunately, I was ready. Training had prepared me for the standard sequence of events that would follow, resulting in the successful shutdown and securing of the engine, and mental preparation had kept me from being caught completely off guard. If anything, I found myself feeling a bit annoyed. I knew I could handle the problem, but come on, it’s go-home day! Why is this happening to me on go-home day?!
After landing safely, entrusting my passengers to the care of the airport’s firefighters and, subsequently, the airport’s bartenders, and making a few phone calls to my company, I took a deep breath and steadied myself. This was the part training hadn’t prepared me for: dealing with the customers whose day I had probably just ruined. How would they react?
Stepping through the door of the terminal restaurant I thought I was ready for anything, but what I found just about knocked me off my feet. “Hey!!” they yelled, raising hurricane glasses to the ceiling, “there he is!!”
Expecting an angry mob to whom I would have to explain myself, I instead found one of the most welcoming and wonderful sights of my career. Moving through the seating area, I found myself hugging and high-fiving every one of my grateful passengers. “Can we go out to the plane for a picture?” one asked. “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” the others shouted.
A Sense of Trust
A few weeks later, relaxing at home, I received an email from my company. As a matter of course, companies often follow-up with customers, particularly if they’ve had an experience that one might classify as out of the ordinary. Typically, this information isn’t shared with crews, but the representative handling my flight felt compelled to share some of my passenger’s reactions with me.
To this day, I still get tears in my eyes reading the wonderful things my passengers said. It made me realize that there is a whole other level to the sense of trust and responsibility that is instilled in us as airline pilots. To us, handling abnormalities can really seem like just another day at work.
Ensuring we are well-trained and well-prepared helps to guarantee that this is the case. But seeing the look on your passenger’s faces makes one realize that emergencies are anything but just another day for them, and that lesson is one that I have found to be fundamentally critical in how I have approached my job ever since.
Trained, Prepared, and Ready
The passengers of United 328 put their trust in a crew they’d never met, and on Saturday, February 20, that trust was put to the test. Many pilots will go their entire career without a major mechanical failure or incident in the air, and nearly every passenger can be assured of a safe, routine flight every single time they set foot on an airliner.
For those very few exceptions, however, you can rest easy knowing that your crew is trained, prepared, and ready. As for me, I will never forget the bond I formed with my passengers that day, and I can promise you that I, and every one of my brother and sister pilots, hold sacred the trust you put in us.
As we take to the air again in 2021, I hope you’ll join us in our climb skyward. Your confidence means the world to us.
Featured image: Hayden Smith/Airways