Posted by: Korry | December 15, 2011

Just Another Routine Flight

We sat at the beginning of the runway staring into fog that was as thick as I’d seen in months, allowing only a handful of runway lights to shine through. Then, over the radios, the controller said, “Flight 111, fly runway heading. Runway one five left cleared for takeoff.”

“One five left, cleared for takeoff,” I said. After a quick nod from my captain acknowledging that he was ready to go, I pushed the power levers up and turned our powerful engines loose!

“Check power,” I said to the captain. He confirmed the autothrottles had adjusted the power setting correctly by replying “Power set.”

The runway stripes were disappearing beneath us at a faster and faster pace as we barreled down the runway. “One-hundred knots,” called my captain. We were now officially in the high-speed regime which meant that stopping for almost any problem was becoming less and less desirable.

At just shy of 150 knots, I heard the captain call “Vee-one.” We were now committed to taking off. Just then, at that most vulnerable of moments, a loud BANG rocked the aircraft, pulling it hard to the left.

“Power loss!” called the captain. Our left engine had failed at the worst possible time. I took a deep breath and turned the plane back to the centerline of the runway. “Rotate,” he commanded. I pulled back on the control wheel in front of me and the plane lumbered slowly into the air. Even though we had only lost one engine and thus 50% of our power, we had lost roughly 80% of our performance giving us a climb rate of barely 400 feet per minute instead of the norm of over 2,000 feet per minute.

The 737 I was piloting was not nearly as stable on one engine. My right foot was pressed almost all the way down on the rudder pedal to compensate for all the differential thrust (full power on the right side with virtually no power on the left side). It seemed to take forever to finally reach 1,000 feet, the safe altitude where we would begin retracting the flaps and figuring out what went wrong. In the meantime, the captain had declared an emergency to ATC and reported how many people were on board, how much fuel we had and how we wanted to immediately return to the airport.

“Engine failure checklist,” I instructed the captain. The checklist guided us through a series of questions to identify how serious the problem was. For instance, was the failed engine still spinning? If so, it may have just been a flame out that we could restart. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The left engine had totally seized, so we methodically worked through a series of steps that cut off fuel and hydraulics to the “dead” engine. I say “methodically” because it would be really bad to shut off the fuel to the good engine!

After a short while, the captain finished securing the failed engine. He then turned to notifying the flight attendants and passengers about what had happened and our intentions to return to Houston. We also needed to let our company know what happened so he sent a quick text message via our on board computers.

By this time, we were now almost back to the airport. While the fog was lifting, it was still just as thick and now rested only 200 feet off the ground. We set up for an instrument approach, dialing in navigation frequencies, setting appropriate courses, and determining the correct airspeed, flap setting and required landing distance.

ATC cleared us for the approach and informed us that the emergency trucks were standing by. About 7 miles from the airport, I asked the captain to extend the flaps, lower the landing gear and complete the landing checklist.

“1000 feet,” he said to me. “500…400…approaching minimums…Runway insight!”

I looked up from the gauges and breathed a little easier as I saw the runway start to pass underneath us. A few seconds later, the wheels touched down, and a few seconds after that we had come to a stop on the runway.

Suddenly, everything seemed to stop and a voice from behind us said, “Not bad guys.” It was our flight instructor. With the simulator paused, he turned to each of us and asked, “So what do you think?” We spent the next minute or two debriefing the engine failure and how we had worked as a team to handle the emergency and make the safe landing.

The engine failure and subsequent landing was just one of many items on the agenda for day one of recurrent training. So while I knew all along we were on just another routine flight in the simulator, my adrenalin was still pumping thanks to how realistic the situation felt. I take comfort knowing that should I ever be tasked with handling a real engine failure, I’ll be ready. That’s what training and repetition is all about.



  1. Great post. Totally got me with the reveal at the end!

  2. Very nice post!….
    Not sure if you’re a Harry Potter fan, but this reminds me of the 3rd Book/Movie, when he gets to do a very complicated spell (Patronus) after having travelled in time and knowing that he had already done the spell previously…I’m sure if the situation ever presents (hopefully not) your mind goes into a mode of “I can do this, I’ve done it before”….

  3. Thanks, Andrew. Glad to hear the little “bait and switch” worked!

  4. Thanks, Gonzalo. I have to admit I haven’t seen many of the Harry Potter movies (much to my wife’s disappointment I might add). That said, it sounds like that’s a great example of the same principle. In aviation (and I assume spell casting) we’re often called upon to do incredibly important things without much notice at all. Training and repitition help to build the “muscle memory” so that the task becomes nearly automatic.

  5. […] much like airline pilots, to practice for emergency situations that could occur during a routine flight. NASA also uses a highly modified Gulfstream II (think corporate jet) to train pilots to land the […]

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