A British Airways jumbo jet lost power in an engine on takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport last month, but the pilot elected not to make an emergency landing for repairs, deciding instead to continue the 5,400-mile, transatlantic flight to London on the remaining three engines, officials said Monday.
Because of unfavorable winds and inefficiencies resulting from the engine loss, the Boeing 747-400 burned more fuel than anticipated, and the pilot was forced to cut the nonstop flight short and land in Manchester, England, the airline said.
The incident occurred three days after the European Union required European-based carriers to compensate passengers whose flights were delayed.
But Diane Fung, a spokeswoman for British Airways, said the pilot’s decision had nothing to do with that requirement.
“We would never compromise the safety of our passengers,” she said. “The plane is certified to fly on three engines. It is perfectly safe to do so. The pilots are trained for such situations.”
Aviation officials in England and the United States are looking into the incident, and two retired jumbo-jet pilots now serving as air safety consultants said they were amazed at the decision to continue the flight.
“It’s not impossible for him to make it, but he’d be a fool to try it,” said Barry Schiff, a former TWA pilot. “That decision just doesn’t make any sense.”
Mel Heflinger, who used to fly 747s for United Airlines, said, “I think he really stretched his luck to try to make the whole trip on three engines.”
“We are concerned,” said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration. She said officials were determining whether any federal regulations were violated.
Robin Hayes, British Airways’ executive vice president for operations in the United States, said the incident was not unprecedented. He said a British Airways 747 lost an engine after takeoff from Los Angeles two years ago and continued on to London’s Heathrow Airport without further problems.
Fung said the latest incident began as British Airways’ Flight 268 lifted off from LAX at 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 20. It carried 351 passengers.
“Right after rotation, there was an engine surge, like a backfire,” Hayes said.
Air traffic controllers at the airport tower saw sparks flying from the crippled engine and heard popping noises.
Checking his instruments, the pilot, whose name has not been released, decided to shut down the affected inboard engine on the left wing, Hayes said.
Heflinger said the plane was quite capable of climbing out on three engines.
The pilot flew two 20-mile circles in a holding pattern over Santa Monica Bay, talking by radio with British Airways’ flight technical team and operations control team in London.
“It was sort of a mini-conference,” Hayes said. “But the final decision was up to the pilot.”
Instead of choosing to dump fuel and return to LAX to repair or replace the crippled engine -- a delay that officials say could have held up the flight for five hours or more -- the pilot continued to England. Hayes said the passengers were told about the situation and the decision.
European Union regulations that went into effect Feb. 17 require airlines to pay each passenger up to $523 for delays of more than four hours on flights longer than 2,215 miles.
The pilot and the airline officials in London “wouldn’t even have discussed that,” Hayes said. “The procedure [continuing a flight on three engines] is within our normal operating protocols.”
He said the airline had continued long flights with an engine out on several occasions.
“Normally, pilots are not that interested in what the bean counters are thinking about back home,” said Peter Garrison, a pilot and contributing editor to Flying magazine. “The basic rule is that the captain has final authority over what the flight does. But I don’t think most pilots would have undertaken such a bizarre-sounding flight, partly just because it sounds kind of dangerous. Sooner or later, someone is going to find out, and that’s just bad PR.”
Schiff said a 747 flying on three engines would reduce the margin of safety. “You can’t go as high and you can’t go as fast,” he said. “The airplane doesn’t perform as it was designed.”
Flying lower, a 747 consumes more fuel. And because one engine is out, the plane crabs slightly, forcing the pilot to correct with deflection of the rudder -- the large, hinged slab on the vertical part of the tail. Rudder deflection creates drag, further increasing fuel consumption.
On Flight 268, these fuel-consumption problems were exacerbated by tail winds weaker than anticipated. It eventually became clear that the plane could not make it to Heathrow.
“There were several alternative landing fields,” Hayes said. “The pilot chose Manchester” -- 163 miles from London.
He said the pilot made a routine landing with enough fuel on board to satisfy international safety regulations.