The escape from a dramatic blaze on a British Airways plane on take-off from Las Vegas underlines advances in aviation safety, according to experts, who note parallels to past incidents that caused widespread fatalities.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will lead an investigation into exactly how the Boeing 777-200 suffered a catastrophic failure to its left engine while accelerating down the runway, but the pilot’s response and the plane’s containment systems meant the fire was swiftly extinguished without serious harm to passengers – terrifying though it may have been for those on board.
One of the worst disasters on a British plane occurred just over 30 years ago in similar circumstances, when an engine caught fire on a British Airtours flight taking off from Manchester in August 1985. As in the Vegas flight, the pilot braked hard before take-off. But on that occasion, the flames engulfed the aircraft, and 55 people died. That disaster led to a range of recommendations from the safety authorities, using more fire retardant materials and allowing more space for evacuation routes.
The UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) also recommended parking and evacuating the plane immediately on the runway, keeping the blaze downwind of the fuselage where possible and distributing the most experienced crew members throughout the plane to aid evacuation.
Tony Cable, a former senior engineer at the AAIB, said the 777 was designed to cope with engine failures and fires. He said: “There’s a fire handle in the cockpit – if the pilot gets a warning that an engine is on fire, he double checks which engine with other crew, then pulls the handle. That shuts off a valve in the fuel tank as well as the electrics and hydraulics, and removes ignition sources and fuel. You can’t control the oil but the quantity of that is limited. And there should be titanium and steel walls that would contain a fire in the engine.”
He said the designs now limit the effects of an engine fire andplanes can fly – and even take-off if already past a certain velocity – on one engine.
However, incidents have occurred of “non-contained” fires that can prove more serious. Cable said: “You could get a very nasty situation if debris comes out and damages the wing or the fuel line. These are very rare – most airline pilots will go an entire career without an engine failure. And aircraft are designed to deal with failures and to make them survivable. Aviation now remains fantastically safe.”
Experts also praised what they called a textbook evacuation. Jim McAuslan, the general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, said: “Pilots are trained to prepare for things not going to plan throughout every single flight so they are able to make split-second decisions and keep passengers safe. A pilot could go through their whole career without dealing with an incident like this, but if it happens, all the training and time in the simulator pays off.
“While we await a meticulous investigation to help us understand this fire and prevent it happening again, all pilots will want to recognise the professional way the pilots and crew dealt with this emergency situation.”
The BA cabin crew from the Gatwick-bound flight 2276, at least one of whom apparently sustained injuries while evacuating the 157 passengers, are currently involved in a dispute with the airline over reduced terms and conditions for the most experienced employees.
The 777’s engine was manufactured by the US firm General Electric. It has had occasional issues with the engines it manufactured for Boeing. In 2013, GE issued a warning when new faulty gearboxes caused engines to shut down on two separate flights (although this BA plane predated those engines).
Incidents and investigations have thrown light on unknown technical and engineering issues, and sometimes human error. One recent investigation into another engine fire on a BA flight from Heathrow to Oslo found that tired maintenance staff who had worked a string of long overnight shifts had attended to the wrong plane and left the covers unlatched.
The Boeing 777-200 was the model flown by Malaysia Airlines on its doomed MH370 and MH17 flights, and has been involved in other incidents.
The aviation lawyer James Healy-Pratt represented plaintiffs aboard the British Airways 777-200 plane, flight BA38, that crash-landed before the runway at Heathrow in 2008, when a problem with the fuel pipes led the engines to fail. He said passengers could seek recompense in the US courts if any systemic safety issues were uncovered.
This article was written by Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th September 2015 13.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010