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Tag: aviation emergency

UAL 328

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

What are your most common emergencies?

It’s an unusual question, but it isn’t. And I’m sure that somewhere, someone actually keeps track of this sort of stuff. It just doesn’t happen to be me. I’ve been asked this several times, and the question came to mind the other day when I had to declare an emergency.

First of all, one has to define what an emergency is. My company manual says that a flight emergency is “any situation, such as a malfunction of the aircraft, that requires immediate decision and action for the safety of flight…[and] requires special procedures to be taken beyond those normally utilized in flight operations.” Note that none of this includes various other emergencies, such as medical emergencies. Basically, what it says, is that…well, it’s so clearly written that it’s pretty obvious what it says.

Still, there is room for interpretation. For instance, we would all probably agree that an issue with a failed elevator would constitute an emergency, which would justify declaring the same. What about a flap failure—specifically, one in which the flaps simply failed to deploy? This was a not-uncommon issue on the CRJ for several years. If flaps fail to move, is that really an emergency? It depends on your definition. Some operations will dictate that if a flight control of any form is involved, then it is an emergency, no matter how minor or severe the situation. The no-flap landing speed on the CRJ is 172 knots indicated. The max groundspeed for the tires is 182 knots. If this scenario were to occur at a high- elevation landing, those two numbers could wind up eyeball-to-eyeball with each other. Besides, 172 knots on final is fast–real fast. Almost 200-miles-an-hour fast. That’s approaching space-shuttle-on-final fast.

But when it comes to “common” emergencies, I’m not sure that there really is a one-sized-fits-all approach. At least, there doesn’t appear to be one for me. I’ve had the flap failure. I’ve had gear issues (this, to me, is the ideal emergency if there is one). I once had a hydraulic failure that forced a diversion. One flight required an engine to be shut down because of improper maintenance done on the airplane after a bird strike the day before. My most recent one was a spoiler that did an uncommanded deployment in flight. An uncontrollable fuel transfer system once caused two emergencies in one day. I used to joke that the tower would just declare an emergency on my behalf every time I took off.

As you can see, there really isn’t a pattern, and that is a testament to how well airplanes are designed and built these days. The redundancy alone is a lifesaver. In fact, sometimes, a redundant system can save the day automatically, and the crew doesn’t even know there was a problem until the airplane says, “Hey, I had this issue, but chill, because I already fixed it.” If I had to pin down the most common issue, it wouldn’t be the airplane. It would the carbon-based units being transported on said airplane. Medical emergencies take place every day. In fact, at least three times a week, I hear a crew calling either ATC or the company about a passenger having a problem.

Of those, my own unscientific analysis seems to indicate that losing consciousness or having what appears to be a heart attack or a stroke top the list. I don’t know this, of course, but I hear an awful lot of discussion about those symptoms (it’s pretty hard to misdiagnose someone as passed out when they are out cold). Some of these get interesting too. Seizures can be dangerous not just for the victim, but also for those around them. They can be messy as well (use your imagination). Ladies going into labor get everyone’s attention. Guess how I know that?

Some emergencies you can practice for, and some you can’t. Some you shouldn’t just because it isn’t very safe to do so. But in your own mind, you should have a definition that suits your equipment and your experience. Should you find yourself within the bounds of that definition, then declare an emergency. As for the rumored “mountains” of paperwork? There is no such thing. ATC may ask for your contact info, but nobody is going to fault you, and nobody is going to be having you filling out piles of forms in triplicate or even in double-icate. Honestly, it’s no big deal. As a matter of fact, if an emergency situation clears itself (say your landing gear had a gremlin, but then acted normally and went to the commanded position), you can “undeclare” your emergency. If you want to, you can fill out a NASA ASRS form, but you are not required to fill anything out, so long as the airplane is not damaged.

Just don’t do what one crew did, and declare an emergency because the FMS/GPS quit and they didn’t think about navigating from VOR to VOR. I won’t say which airline it was for, but yes, it did happen. Once.—Chip Wright