On February 20, after the news of United flight 328 hit the airwaves, my phone began blowing up with people wanting to know if I was flying the airplane (no) or if I was on it (again, no).
In case you’ve been living under a rock or just consumed with the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West divorce, 328 is the Boeing 777 that departed Denver for Honolulu, only to sustain an uncontained engine failure shortly after departure. The crew declared an emergency and coordinated with air traffic control to return to Denver, touching down roughly 30 minutes after departure.
It’s understandable that folks want to know what happened, especially given the unusual pictures of debris that landed on yards in residential areas (the true miracle in this is that nobody was hurt on the ground). I have several theories about what might have happened, and all are realistically possible, but they might also all be totally wrong. One person on Facebook pointed out what appears to be damage to one of the fan blades on the engine, but it remains to be seen if the damage caused the explosion, or if the explosion caused the damage.
What I can tell you is that it will take months, if not a year, for the NTSB to come up with a probable cause. Until they do, it isn’t fair to anyone—the pilots, the airline, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, the FAA, or any others that come to mind—to pretend to know what did or didn’t happen, especially in a public forum such as this.
But I will say this: Events like the one on 328 are what we train for. We spend countless hours in classrooms and simulators discussing the myriad ways that normal operations can quickly go “abnormal” or “non-normal.” We brainstorm, we talk, we share, and when we get in the simulator, we get to practice dozens of possible scenarios in which a worst-case event is inflicted upon us. Some of them are hopelessly complex and borderline unsurvivable. Some are based on events that have happened in real life.
When we first start training in a new airplane or with a new company, we often make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes “red screen,” which is the simulator version for a crash. But then we do it again. And again. And again. And for good measure, we do it yet again. Eventually, certain actions become ingrained; certain processes become second nature; and we tame the beast of unpredictability and the unknown. Our confidence in the equipment and ourselves grows. When training is complete, they trust us to let you, the flying public, to put your trust in us without reservation. And when training is complete, we continue to learn, to talk, to share what ifs. We do this every year.
I saw the word “scary” a lot. And I’m sure that the passengers were terrified, especially those that could see the engine doing things it shouldn’t do. As for the crew, my guess is that after a moment of unprintable words and an adrenaline rush, they immediately focused on what needed to be done.
First, fly the airplane. Identify for certain which engine is compromised, and to what extent.
Second, navigate. This flight was headed west, so terrain clearance over the Rockies was probably an early concern. The weather was good, which helped.
Third, communicate, first with each other, and then with ATC. Once an agreement was made on what the issue was, the appropriate checklist needs to be executed. One pilot likely took over the flying and radio, while the other handled the checklists.
Time was on their side. They were at a safe altitude, and there was no inclement weather to complicate the return to the airport. They had plenty of fuel. From what we know so far, the other engine was operating normally, and this is key: The second engine really and truly is a spare, and it really and truly can get a fully loaded airplane safely to an alternate airport. This is just as true over the Lower 48 as it would be had the issue occurred over the Pacific or the North or South Pole.
A far more dangerous scenario, and one we practice ad nauseum in training, would have been an engine failure on the takeoff roll, just before rotation (we call this a V1 cut). At that point, they would have been committed to getting a wounded bird airborne, navigating the transition from barely ground-bound as the wings generate lift, to airborne but with reduced power, which is one of the worst things a pilot can experience.
Losing an engine at altitude? I’ve dealt with this twice, and I’ll take that option over the engine failure on takeoff every time.
Kudos to the crew for a job well done. Years of training, expertise, and experience were put to use. We’ll get the answers about what happened in time, and our system will be better for it.-–Chip Wright