Proficient Pilot

An extraordinary record

January 1, 2010

Before and following my retirement from TWA, the most common question asked me by nonpilots has been, “What was the most harrowing [or equivalent adjective] emergency [or equivalent noun] that ever happened to you?” I always feel a little apologetic when I reply that I have not had any seriously threatening events as an airline pilot. A little disappointed, they usually then ask, “Well, what about engine failures? Surely you must have had some of those.”

The truth is that during my 53,322 jet-engine hours with TWA, I never had so much as one failure. (A three-engine airplane provides three hours of turbine-engine experience per hour of flight time, and so forth.) The modern turbine engine is extraordinarily reliable, although the emergency for which airline pilots receive the most training is—you guessed it—an engine failure. I have, however, had to shut down an engine during flight three times.

The first occurred shortly after leveling at cruise altitude at the beginning of a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York in a Boeing 707. The flight engineer was adjusting the thrust levers when the fire bell sounded. (It is louder and more startling in a cockpit than a simulator.) The checklist commanded us to fire one extinguisher or both and shut down the offending engine. We obtained a clearance to return to LAX and landed uneventfully. An inspection of the engine revealed that there had not been a fire; it was a false warning.

The second occurred while operating a Boeing 727 at cruise altitude between Chicago and Phoenix. It was a beautiful day. Severe clear. As we pulled contrails over Kansas City, the oil-filter bypass light for the center engine lit up. This most likely meant that the engine was “making metal.” Metal chips were clogging the oil filter, and oil automatically bypassed the filter as it coursed its way through the system. The checklist insisted that the engine be shut down. Losing the center engine at altitude in “Miss Piggy” is no biggy, and we landed at Kansas City.

The third shutdown was somewhat unusual. While accelerating for takeoff in a Lockheed 1011 at St. Louis, the center engine was developing slightly excessive power, and the flight engineer slowly retarded its throttle. But no matter how much he brought back the thrust lever, the engine stubbornly continued to develop too much thrust. Finally, the throttle was fully aft, in the flight idle position, as we rotated for takeoff. Although this was initially quite amusing, we quickly realized that we had lost control of the engine. There was no checklist for a “runaway engine,” but it surely was not an airworthy condition. So we climbed to a safe altitude, retracted the flaps, accelerated to a safe airspeed, and shut down the engine by turning off its fuel supply. None of us expected the loud, singular bang that followed, but then, none of us had ever before shut down an engine while it was developing full power. After calming the passengers, we returned for an otherwise routine landing. In each case, the ailing engine could have been restarted and used in the event that some subsequent emergency developed that required additional power.

My experience with turbine engines is purely anecdotal, of course. Some pilots have had engines actually fail or even explode (in the case of a rotor burst). Overall, though, turbine engines, especially modern ones, are remarkably dependable. Most of us know this, but we might not appreciate just how reliable they are. United Airlines’ fleet of Boeing 777s, for example, accumulated 2.3 million hours of flight time during a recent eight-year period. During this time, there were only 16 in-flight shutdowns, only one every 287,500 engine hours, an extraordinary record.

On an unrelated subject, I recently walked into Channel Islands Aviation in Camarillo, California, to rent a Cessna 172SP for a short cross-country flight. In addition to the normal paperwork and keys, the dispatcher behind the desk handed me a Spot, one of those orange satellite trackers a little larger than a cell phone.

“What do I do with this?” I asked.

“You’re supposed to stick it on the patch of Velcro in the baggage compartment so that we can track you.”

“Track me?”

The Oberman family, which owns the school, got the idea from Cessna, which uses Spot to track demonstration aircraft. “It doesn’t substitute for a flight plan,” says Sarah Oberman. “Instead of waiting for an aircraft to become overdue, our instructors can monitor the progress of cross-country students. We go to the Spot Web site and see the actual locations of our aircraft. We know where each one is or has been at any given time. It’s some of the best insurance we’ve ever had.”

I could understand why Spot trackers are becoming so popular and learned that they also are being used to locate sailplanes that might have run out of lift and made “outlandings.” Spot is even used by some automobile rental agencies to keep track of expensive cars. As I looked at the orange device and began to appreciate how this technology would unquestionably enhance safety, a gnawing in the pit of my stomach began to make me wonder if this could lead to a further erosion of freedom and privacy. Perhaps I’m just paranoid.

Barry Schiff was an FAA-designated pilot examiner for 14 years and a check airman for TWA. Visit the author’s Web site.