A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The Guardian, (and now most of the internet) have been complaining:

Air traffic controllers monitoring a British Airways jumbo jet were stunned at the pilot’s decision to try to “get as far as we can” after an engine caught fire on takeoff, a transcript of discussions between the plane and the control tower revealed.
The controllers in Los Angeles expected the four-engine Boeing 747 to turn around but, after taking advice from BA’s operations base, the pilot carried on towards London. He told air traffic control: “We just decided we want to set off on our flight-plan route and get as far as we can.”

Crikey, that seems frightening. Why would they do that. Luckily the Guardian has the answer too:

By pressing ahead with the flight, the aircraft avoided a £100,000 bill for delay compensation, though there is no suggestion that this is why this flight went ahead.

Ah, that’s it. Bloody corporations at it again, risking lives to make money. Or perhaps not. The pilot’s decision seems utterly ridiculous, but let’s think about it a little more:

  • If the plane crashes, then the pilot dies. I don’t think he wants to die. I’m guessing he probably thought that carrying on was safe.
  • Believe it or not, a 747 has absolutely no trouble flying on 3 engines. Taking off might take longer, but crusing along is fine. It’s even (just about) possible to fly on 2 engines.
  • Planes these days come with fire extinguishing devices in the engines. I’m guessing that the fire was almost certainly completely extinguished, and the engine status checked, before the pilot decided to press on.
  • Most large jets have far lower permitted landing weights than permitted take-off weights. It’s OK to take off with a heavy plane – you just turn up the power. Landing is harder. The simple fact is that the undercarriage of a 747 will not take the stress of landing with a full passenger complement, and FULL FUEL LOAD.
  • In order to land and return to LAX, the pilot would have to get rid of the excess weight (fuel). This means either dumping it all into the air, or doing laps around Los Angeles for several hours. Why spend hours flying in the same place when you might as well make some progress?
  • The way to London from LA involves flying a long way over America and Nova Scotia before hopping over the Atlantic. There are several large airports en route which could be used in the event of an emergency. What’s more, it’d be a lot easier to get an emergency landing slot at a smaller airport.
  • If the plane got to the coast without trouble, it’d almost certainly manage the Atlantic as well. If not, then they could have landed in Iceland.
  • The reason for landing at Manchester was almost certainly due to the plane running into its fuel reserves, which is naughty. There’s no suggestion that the landing was an emergency landing with the plane running on vapour.

Admittedly some of these points depend on things running smoothly, but it’s clear that the pilot’s decision wasn’t at all foolhardy, and made a lot of sense. Flying on wasn’t appreciably more dangerous than flying circles in the air, whereas landing immediately would have crashed the plane (as the undercarriage collapsed). That full fuel load would have burned nicely.

A little knowledge makes people think that they have the right to write articles and posts all round the internet criticising the actions of a professional pilot, but sometimes they don’t have all the info to hand.

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