Hitting the Fan

What happens when engine failure really happens?

September 1, 2005

Emergencies in flight — we read about them, we talk about them, we train for them. Regardless of what kind of airplane we fly or what kind of flying we do — we wonder, "What happens when it really happens?"

Well, it really happened to me. I'm a pilot, and although I fly Boeing 737s for a major airline, I'm probably not that much different from you. I'm not Chuck Yeager, but I'm not continually looking for a crash site either.

A few quick things to clear up about in-flight emergencies. First, when it happens, there is no OnStar to call. Second, there is no high-powered movie soundtrack to provide adrenaline — it's just not needed. Third, there is no Leslie Nielsen poking his head in the cockpit every few seconds to say, "Good luck, we're all counting on you." Your fate is in your own hands.

My first officer, Scott, and I were in the middle of a fairly easy three-day trip. After overnighting in Spokane, Washington, we started our day with a short 45-minute flight across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful flight — our noses were pressed against the glass the whole way. We followed that with an uneventful flight down to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, and got ready for an equally uneventful trip back to Portland International Airport in Oregon.

We had been completely full down to Burbank, but only had 89 passengers, a baby or two, and a crew of five going back. Our takeoff weight was 115,700 pounds with a clearance for the Van Nuys 7 Departure, Gorman Transition direct Klamath Falls and the Moxee 5 Arrival into Portland. We had filed Yakima and Seattle as alternates with 20,000 pounds of gas on board in case Mount St. Helens elected to blow her stack that night as she had been threatening to do for days. We did a pretty quick turn in Burbank and left the gate at 8:27 p.m. It was dark, as it often is at night. Engine start and all checklists proceeded normally and we took off for Portland.

So there we were, fat, dumb, and happy at Flight Level 350. We had just passed Fresno and Scott was watching the autopilot take us direct to Klamath Falls while I was doing the radios and paperwork and such. It was a little after 9 on a Sunday night in October. You now know what I knew.

That was when all hell broke loose, at least from our point of view. The airplane started vibrating and yawing from side to side. The engine gauges were going nuts; they indicated that the Left Engine N1 (the big fan speed) was fluctuating wildly between approximately 90 percent (slightly above cruise) and 40 percent (slightly above idle). EGT (exhaust gas temperature) also was fluctuating wildly, but trending toward an overtemp condition, which is 895 degrees Celsius.

We disconnected the autopilot. It was clear that we were going to lose the engine, so we declared an emergency with Oakland Center and asked for a lower altitude. We were not immediately sure what altitude we could maintain, but we knew it would be a lot lower than FL350. A Boeing 737-400 flies fine on one engine, but the max service ceiling goes from 37,000 feet to around 20,000 feet plus or minus a few thousand, depending upon weight, temperature, who's in the White House, and so on. So we knew we were going down, er, descending. We were given FL240 as a place to start. At that moment, air traffic control was unaware that we couldn't maintain FL240 but we didn't feel like we had the time at that moment to explain it to them.

There also was a funny smell in the cockpit. That wasn't good. Half my mind was telling me that the air-conditioning system had just picked up some bad air from the bad engine and it would clear up in a minute. The other half of my mind was just thinking one word — ValuJet. From 35,000 feet, we weren't landing anywhere soon so — while we reserved the right to be scared &%*#less later — we moved on.

The flight attendants called about this time to say hi. They wanted to know if we were aware that there had been a couple of explosions and that the left engine was belching fire. Fire? That wasn't good. We had no indication of fire. Did we know that the engine was in serious trouble and probably about to eat itself and fail completely? Yes. Did we know anything about a fire? No. The half of my mind that was thinking ValuJet a minute ago was getting louder.

The attendants also wanted to know if we were aware of the funny smell in the cabin. We told them that we were aware of the smell, we were aware of the engine problem, and we would be making an emergency landing in about 20 minutes. We said we'd be back in a few minutes with more details.

Scott and I quickly discussed doing the memory items for this type of situation. We didn't have memory items for this type of situation. We did some anyway: We retarded the throttle and shut the engine down.

We were not experiencing any flight control issues or other problems that would indicate damage to the airplane outside of the left engine. This was good. This was a fair indication that whatever failures were occurring in the left engine were being reasonably contained in the left engine. On the other hand, we had no idea if we were dropping engine parts into Yosemite National Park either.

OK, where were we, compared to where we could go? Reno, Nevada, was momentarily considered and then discarded because of unlit, extremely mountainous terrain surrounding the airport. Mountains, darkness, high-altitude field — bad. Generally speaking, any place famous for its skiing is not a good choice for an emergency landing. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose were not really considered because of terrain, possible traffic, and distance. Fresno also was not seriously considered, because it was behind us and unfamiliar. We could already see Sacramento in the distance, and even though we hadn't planned on going there that evening, we were familiar with it because it's a city our airline serves and we had charts for it. We advised ATC that we would most likely be diverting to Sacramento International Airport. We were now about 70 miles from the airport doing about 7 miles a minute.

We then performed the "Engine Fire, Severe Damage, or Separation" quick reference checklist (QRC). The QRC is located on the back of our normal checklist and is the first place we go when we have a serious problem.

It told us to do several items, some of which we already had done. We elected to do this specific checklist because of the assumed damage to the engine and the report of fire from the flight attendants.

We were losing electrical power because when we shut down the left engine, we lost the left generator as well. This also was noticeable to the passengers, as they were losing some cabin lighting. It was noticeable to us because we were losing all sorts of things. This was a 737-400 so one generator couldn't carry the electrical load of the entire airplane. To handle that problem we started the auxiliary power unit (APU), which acted as a backup generator, and brought it online to replace the failed left generator. We had to be below 35,000 feet to do this, which we were.

We tried to call Sacramento Company Operations to let them know they were about to have a hundred or so unexpected guests. We could not reach them right away (probably because they were not expecting company so late on a Sunday night), so we elected to send an ACARS (datalink) message to Seattle Dispatch to advise them of our problem and plan. Since it's hard to type on the flight management computer keyboard (it's not a QWERTY keyboard like your laptop), the message was brief — along the lines of, "Left engine failed, going to SMF, ETA 2135, get them ready." Dispatch sent a message back with a frequency to contact maintenance control. We tried, no joy. Dispatch sent a second message back with a new frequency, apologizing for the incorrect frequency that they sent us the first time. We advised maintenance what had happened. There really wasn't much help they or the company could offer, but at least they were officially informed. We finally contacted Sacramento Company Operations and advised them that we were 15 minutes out and hopefully would need a gate.

It had been maybe five minutes since the engine first started dying. Yes, five minutes.

We advised Oakland Center of our formal intent to divert to Sacramento, souls on board, and fuel remaining. We asked for rescue equipment to be standing by. We also asked them for the weather and what approach we could expect. The ATIS Information Echo for Sacramento at 0456 Zulu read: "170/10 CLR 10 19/13 29.95 Visual Approaches 16R/16L." They told us the runway was our choice. We told them we would prefer a visual to Runway 16R (since it's the runway we usually use at Sacramento) backed up by the ILS.

We then continued to the quick reference handbook (QRH) as instructed at the end of the QRC. The QRH contains all of our abnormal-procedures checklists as well as limited performance and reference information. We performed the single-engine descent and approach checklists, with several interruptions, during our descent. During this time, we were called by ATC, the flight attendants, company maintenance control, and Sacramento Company Operations. We had to stop at various times to set up the flight management computer to navigate to Sacramento and then pull our approach plates (buried in our flight bags, since we never planned on going anywhere other than Portland) for the approach into Sacramento. Needless to say, there was a lot of multitasking going on.

We talked several times with the flight attendants, letting them know where we were going and telling them to prepare for an emergency landing. We advised them that there should be no need for a brace command (you know, where you grab your ankles and hope for the best) and that we did not expect to have to evacuate the airplane. We also made several announcements to the passengers. We told them that the airplane was perfectly capable of flying on a single engine and that we trained for this. We didn't tell them what would happen if we lost the other engine.

Once we switched to Norcal Approach they asked us whether we wanted an east downwind or west downwind to Runway 16R. Since we were coming from the southeast and an east downwind would allow us to do all our turns into the dead engine, we went for that. It wasn't much, but every little bit helped.

We briefed the approach and landing. This would be a visual approach, using flaps 15 (which is our single-engine-landing flaps setting — flaps 30 is normal) to Runway 16R, which is 8,500 feet long. We weighed about 110,000 pounds, so we were below the maximum landing weight of 121,200 pounds. Our approach target speed would be 153 knots and our landing speed would be 148, about 15 to 20 knots higher than normal. It would be a long, fast landing. We planned to transition the aircraft pressurization to the APU to give us as much power as possible should we have had to go around on one engine.

Once we were switched to Capital Tower we coordinated with airport command (emergency equipment) that we would stop on the runway while they inspected the airplane for any fire or indication of significant damage.

The single-engine landing checklist was completed abeam the airport. There hadn't been any time for thoughtful contemplation so far. We'd been extremely busy the whole time. I tried to take 30 seconds to review what we'd done to see if I could spot anything we missed.

Turning about an eight-mile final for Runway 16R we advised the Tower and airport command that we had approximately 13,500 pounds of fuel on board the airplane. Even though the ILS had identified properly, we could not get any indication of a localizer or glideslope and there was no VASI (visual approach slope indicator) that we could see. We proceeded visually to the runway, comparing our altitude to a standard 3-degree glidepath of 318 feet per nautical mile from the runway.

We landed on Runway 16R at Sacramento at 9:38 p.m. Because it was a single-engine landing, and our landing speeds were faster, it took a while to stop. Airport command inspected the left engine while we remained on the runway. They reported that there was no fire then and saw no problem with us taxiing to the gate. We did so, arriving at the gate at 9:47.

I walked through the cabin, and talked to each row of passengers, asking if they were OK and letting them know that we were working on a new plan to get them to Portland. Some passengers were visibly upset, but most were appreciative of the situation. Many of them had seen the fireworks coming out of the engine. One kid who saw the fireworks wanted to know if he could take the same airplane and engine to Portland. I told him that he could, but personally I was looking for another airplane. After a few minutes the passengers got off the airplane. Scott and I both stood in the forward galley, speaking to them as they left.

We wrote up the incident in the maintenance log and talked to Seattle Dispatch, the flight operations duty officer (who represented the director of operations), maintenance control in Seattle, and Sacramento Company Operations to debrief and develop a plan. We talked with the flight attendants to see if they wanted to continue to Portland that evening or if they wanted to call it a night and get a hotel room. They are based in Portland and wanted to go home. Scott and I discussed the situation and agreed that we were also willing to continue to Portland. After all, we had just scared the bejesus out of a hundred passengers; the last thing we wanted to do was strand them in Sacramento on top of that. There were three passengers who wanted to stay — two because they had already missed their connections in Portland and one because she didn't want to see an airplane again for quite awhile.

We took the flight attendants down onto the ramp and took a look at the left engine. It was easy to see the metal parts sitting in the bottom of the cowling. I was pretty sure that was bad. As the rest of the crew was heading up the stairs and back into the jetway to get the other airplane ready to go, I spent a moment with our broken airplane.

I put a hand on the airplane like an old friend and said a quick thank you and a silent prayer. This could have been really ugly.

There just happened to be another 737-400 spending the night at the gate next door. We borrowed it. Since all of the service people had already gone home for the night, we dragged galley carts, pillows, and anything else we needed off the old airplane ourselves and loaded them onto the new airplane. We wanted to make sure that if someone wanted a drink, snack, pillow, or anything else on the way to Portland they could get it. It had been more than three hours since we left Burbank and it would be another hour and a half at least before we'd make it to Portland.

Scott and I both stood in the forward galley and welcomed the passengers onto our freshly stolen replacement airplane. We then hot-wired the airplane like a 1966 Chevy and hit the road. We had spent one hour and 49 minutes in Sacramento.

We arrived in Portland at 12:58 a.m. Scott and I stood in the forward galley again and talked with the passengers as they left for the night. We said thanks for coming with us; they said thanks for getting us to Portland safely. We all meant it.


A spare engine was brought from our maintenance base in Oakland and hung on the aircraft later that night. We were told the next day that the cause of the engine problem was a number-three bearing failure and that the engine was history. The fire seen from the passenger cabin was essentially a series of huge backfires.

What did I learn from this event? First, don't panic. Was I a little excited? Possibly — it's certainly fair to say that the situation had my complete attention. Panicked? No. No member of our crew panicked either. As far as I know we all did OK.

Second, I learned that for me at least, when the fertilizer hits the fan, what I remember and use in an emergency is not necessarily all of the specific technical knowledge for the airplane that I am flying. I found that I remembered the characteristics, more of the flavor of what I have learned in my aviation career. Things such as, "Go slow, don't make the situation worse than it already is." We all hear of instances where a minor problem turns catastrophic because of how it was handled by the crew. Things such as, "Remember to take care of your passengers, your crew, and your airplane." Take a moment to think about their needs, how you can be an asset to them, and how they can be an asset to you.

The final thing I learned was that it never occurred to me that we would not make it. Scott flew the airplane with incredible airmanship. If I had not already known that we had lost an engine, I never would have known it by the way he flew the airplane.

For most of us, successfully navigating an in-flight emergency lies somewhere in that vast area between speaking engagements and losing our certificate. It is, however, a great opportunity to get second-guessed by every man, woman, and child on the planet. As part of that process, I am sure as time goes on I will realize that I have learned more from this than I thought. But for me at least, I now know what happens when it really happens. And here's hoping that because it happened to me it won't happen to you.

Marc K. Henegar, of Bend, Oregon, is a captain for Alaska Airlines.