February 28, 2021

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United Airlines engine failure on Boeing 777 flight from Colorado: What travelers need to know

5 min read

An engine failure on a United Airlines flight from Colorado  to Hawaii that rained aircraft parts over suburban Denver on Saturday has thrust the Boeing 777, aircraft engine types and fan blades into the spotlight.

The plane returned to Denver safely, with no reported injuries to 231 passengers, 10 crew members or Colorado residents, but images from the viral incident and passenger reports have shaken travelers and left them with countless questions about one of the airline industry’s go-to widebody jets for Europe and Hawaii flights.

Video taken from inside the plane and posted to social media shows the right engine on fire, with part of the engine cover, which landed in a Broomfield, Colorado, yard, missing.

“The plane started shaking violently, and we lost altitude and we started going down,” David Delucia, who was sitting directly across the aisle from the side with the failed engine, told the Associated Press. “When it initially happened, I thought we were done. I thought we were going down.”

United only US airline with Boeing 777s powered by engine that failed Saturday 

The Federal Aviation Administration said there are 128 older Boeing 777s powered by Pratt & Whitney 4000 engines.

United is the only U.S. carrier with planes with the affected engines. The airline had 24 in operation and 28 in storage due to the pandemic before voluntarily grounding them late Sunday. United passengers will be accommodated on other flights.

The grounding is a step further than the FAA’s directive to step up inspections on Boeing 777s with the Pratt & Whitney engines, specifically the fan blades.

The other airlines operating 777s with the Pratt & Whitney engines are in Japan and South Korea, the FAA says. They include Japan Airlines, ANA and Korean Airlines. The Japan Civil Aviation Bureau has also grounded them.

Yes, you still might be booked on a Boeing 777 

United has 44 other Boeing 777s, all with GE engines, which are not impacted by United’s 777 grounding or the FAA directive. It will use one of those planes, for example, to fly between San Francisco and Taipei, Taiwan, in March instead of one of its grounded 777s as originally planned, according to United spokesman Charles Hobart.

American Airlines has 67 Boeing 777s in its fleet. They are powered by Rolls-Royce and GE engines, which also aren’t affected by the FAA’s directive. The planes were used for international flying before the pandemic but are now frequently used on flights within the U.S., spokesman Sarah Jantz said.

Delta Air Lines retired its 18 Boeing 777s last year, earlier than planned due to the plunge in international travel given COVID-19 travel restrictions and health concerns. The final Delta 777 flight was a New-York-to-Los-Angeles flight in October. The airline, which began flying the jet between Atlanta and London in 1999,  called it the end of an era and praised the jet as a “workhorse.” Delta flew nearly 134,000 flights on the plane.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said retiring a fleet as “iconic” as the 777 was not an easy decision given its role in the airline’s international growth.

“I’ve flown on that plane often, and I love the customer experience it has delivered over the years,” he said in a statement ahead of the final flight last fall.

Delta Air Lines retired its 18 Boeing 777s in 2020.

Aviation safety expert: Uncontained engine failures are rare but potentially catastrophic

United Flight 328 from Denver to Honolulu experienced what is called an uncontained engine failure.

That means engine parts exited the engine despite protective coverings and other safety measures.

Uncontained failures are more dramatic and tend to be more dangerous than other engine failures because of the potential damage the errant parts can inflict on the plane, according to Ed Coleman, chairman of the safety science department at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, and director of the school’s Robertson Safety Institute.

“When things come out of the engine, you don’t know where they’re going to go,” he said. “Some puncture fuel tanks, … or they set something on fire.”

In 2018, an uncontained engine failure on a Southwest flight killed a 43-year-old mother of two.

The NTSB’s investigation into the April 2018 Southwest engine failure found that a crack in an engine fan blade caused it to break off and hit the fan cover at a critical point near some latches. The impact caused the cover to open and sent some parts into the fuselage. One part punctured a window, fatally injuring Jennifer Riordan, the passenger in the window seat.

Overall, the number of engine failures is “infinitesimally small,” Coleman said. “This is an anomaly more than a routine thing.”

“They’re pretty rare because of the  inspection procedures,” Coleman added. “Engines have specific times that they get torn down and looked at.”

Coleman, a former Air Force pilot, said pilots are routinely trained to handle engine failures, uncontained and contained. He said the United pilots’ tone on Air Traffic Control recordings during the incident underscores that.

“Their voices don’t even go up an octave,” he said.

The former Air Force pilot has investigated military engine failures and experienced one uncontained engine failure in his career and about a dozen other engine failures that required him to shut down the engine.

United had a similar engine failure on another Boeing 777 flight to Hawaii

Saturday’s incident wasn’t the first uncontained failure for United on a Boeing 777 flight to Hawaii.

In February 2018, a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii, on a plane with the same Pratt & Whitney engine, lost its engine cover after a fan blade separate during the plane’s descent into Honolulu.

The flight made an emergency landing, but there were no injuries to the 363 passengers and 10 crew members. The plane had minor damage.

New engine inspection procedures were put in place to avoid a repeat.

“When a fan blade breaks, it’s usually because there’s some kind of missed crack,” Coleman said.

It’s early, but the similarity between the two incidents will no doubt be zeroed in on by the NTSB, he said.

“My guess is they will look at those inspection procedures very closely and determine what was missed and how it was missed.”

The United Boeing 777 involved in the 2018 incident returned to service at United. Late Saturday, United used the plane to fly passengers taken off of Flight 328 on a later flight to Honolulu.

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