Proficient Pilot

Obligated to land

June 1, 2005

As of this month, Barry Schiff has been writing for AOPA Pilot for 42 years.

Last February, British Airways Flight 268, a Boeing 747-400, departed Los Angeles International Airport for London, England.

Shortly after liftoff, an engine failed. After consulting with the airline's technical staff in England, the captain opted to continue the 11-hour flight.

Although I am unfamiliar with British aviation regulations, the problem occurred in U.S. airspace so the flight also was subject to our federal aviation regulations. Paraphrasing Part 121.565 governing air-carrier operations, the captain must land at the nearest suitable airport in the event of engine failure. But there is an exception if the aircraft has three or more engines. He may continue to a more distant airport if he deems this to be "at least as safe" as landing at the nearest suitable airport. It is difficult to conceive how an almost-4,800-nautical-mile polar flight across the roof of the world above some of the world's most inhospitable geography on three engines with a substantially reduced performance envelope could be considered "at least as safe" as simply dumping fuel and landing at nearby Los Angeles.

Flight 268 did not complete its flight without incident, however. Flying lower and slower, the aircraft consumed more fuel than originally planned and the captain had to divert to Manchester, England, 130 nm short of London's Heathrow Airport. A fuel-pump warning light caused him to declare an emergency so that a landing could be made there without delay.

During the period between January 1, 2000, and March 1, 2005, engine failures occurred on 11 U.S. air carriers during initial climb. In each case, the captain opted to return to the departure airport. Prior to writing this, I asked 23 active, retired, domestic, and international U.S. airline captains what they thought of continuing a flight as the British Airways captain did. Their colorful comments are not printable here. Suffice it to say that none could understand that style of risk management.

There has been speculation that the British Airways flight continued toward its destination because of economic pressure. A recently enacted passenger-rights regulation of the European Union requires that stiff penalties be paid to passengers in the event of flight cancellations and delays.

It is possible, therefore, that safety was trumped by the al-mighty dollar (or pound sterling). If so, this kind of misdirected dedication to passenger rights could have long-term and dire implications for airline safety.

(The same airplane was used on another British Airways flight and flown for 10.5 hours following an engine failure en route from Singapore to London with 356 passengers.)

One can only wonder if these flights would have continued to London had the passenger-rights regulation not been in effect. British Airways has an exceptional safety record and it would be a shame to see it blemished because of consumerism run amok.

Speaking of passengers, I wonder what the 351 souls (plus crew) aboard Flight 268 would have preferred had they been given the facts and the option to land.

General aviation pilots also are affected by airworthiness issues that occur during flight, but many do not appreciate the extent to which they are responsible. Part 91.7(b) states, "The pilot in command shall discontinue the flight when unairworthy mechanical, electrical, or structural conditions occur." (See " Pilot Counsel: In-Flight Mechanical Problems," page 50.)

This means if anything occurs during a flight that would prevent the airplane from satisfactorily passing an annual inspection, the pilot is obligated to land. Did an insect fly into and clog your pitot tube? You should land at the nearest suitable airport and have the probe cleared. Has the generator failed? Land.

This might be one of the most frequently violated regulations because it often does not make sense to land so soon. Take the case of a tire that blows upon liftoff (in a fixed-gear airplane). What difference would it make if the pilot were to continue to his destination or to where repairs can be made? Unfortunately, FAR 91.7(b) doesn't provide an option. It mandates that the flight be discontinued.

Remember the tragedy involving Air Alaska Flight 261 on January 31, 2000, near Point Mugu, California? The crew knew shortly after takeoff from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, that the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 was suffering a control-system anomaly in pitch that worsened with time. One can only speculate if the flight might have been saved had the crew landed at any of several airports passed along the way instead of continuing all the way to where it eventually plunged into the sea. I ask this not to criticize the crew with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but instead to present food for thought.

In the final analysis, the pilot in command must determine the safest course of action. Part 91.3(b) gives him the authority to violate any regulation — including aircraft airworthiness requirements — if he deems it to be in the best interest of safety.

I do not believe this gives a captain the right to proceed along an 11-hour flight across the Arctic in a multiengine airplane handicapped by an engine failure when there is a perfectly good airport only minutes away.

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