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United Flight 328: New Details Shine Light On Crew’s Actions

As the flaming engine shed debris over Colorado neighborhoods, the response from the crew, and ATC, seemed picture perfect.

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Details are emerging from the spectacular, uncontained engine failure of the Number Two (right side) engine of a United Airlines 777, and actions of the crew and ATC are being met with rave reviews. We’re also learning more about exactly what happened.

Just four minutes after departure from Denver International Airport, the crew got the biggest surprise of their lives. Just after they applied power to climb to their next assigned altitude, the right engine gave off a loud bang followed by vibration and lots of noise. The “engine fire” warning clanged loudly in the cockpit. From the cabin, passengers were terrified to see the suddenly naked engine shaking and spewing smoke and flames.

Immediately calling a Mayday alert, the pilot flying would be ticking off the five “memory items” of the engine fire checklist—a sequence that training has made as automatic to airline crews as making their morning coffee. Autothrottle off – Thrust lever to idle – Fuel control shut off – Engage the engine fire switch (which also shuts off hydraulic fluid) – and, if the fire message doesn’t shut off, rotate the fire switch to the stop, and hold for one second, releasing fire-suppressing fluids. Then, after 30 seconds, if the fire message persists, hit the second fire switch.

Meanwhile, the crew was calling for a turn to go back to the airport and the pilot not flying (all advocates of single-pilot airliner operations, take note) was urgently pulling up the follow-on checklists. Instead of flying to Hawaii that morning, United Flight 328 and its 231 passengers and 10 crew members took a left turn (away from the “dead engine”) to a heading of 070, flew past DEN as they completed the appropriate checklists and turned to land safely on Runway 26 Right—to a chorus of cheers from all on board.

Even as fire crews were dousing the carcass of what used to be a Pratt & Whitney PW4000-12, people living under the flight path were gazing wide-eyed at large chunks of engine cowling in their front yards. Fortunately, no one was injured in the air or on the ground. Also fortunately for the airplane, there was little of the cowing left attached to the wing to create aerodynamic drag and compromise controllability, as was the biggest challenge with the 2018 engine failure on Southwest Flight 1380.

The investigation is ongoing, but the NTSB has already confirmed that two of the engine’s hollow vanes shattered, likely from metal fatigue, leading to what turned out to be a spectacularly “uncontained” engine failure. The fully contained and coordinated response of the crew and air traffic controllers provided the happy landing.

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The impact of the event was nearly immediate and reached around the globe soon after, as well. United Airlines announced that it was grounding all of its 777’s with the affected, Pratt & Whitney series 4000 engines, and the FAA has grounded 777’s with the engine model that failed and urged more involved inspection processes. In response to the engine failure, United quickly moved to ground all of its 777s with the affected engine, which was the recommendation of the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, as well. Japan Airlines and Korean Airlines have both grounded their 777s with the same model of engine as the one that failed on UAL 328.

 

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