The escape from a dramatic blaze on a British Airways plane on take-off from Las Vegas underlines advances in aviation safety, according to experts, who note parallels to past incidents that caused widespread fatalities.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will lead an investigation into exactly how the Boeing 777-200 suffered a catastrophic failure to its left engine while accelerating down the runway, but the pilot’s response and the plane’s containment systems meant the fire was swiftly extinguished without serious harm to passengers – terrifying though it may have been for those on board.
One of the worst disasters on a British plane occurred just over 30 years ago in similar circumstances, when an engine caught fire on a British Airtours flight taking off from Manchester in August 1985. As in the Vegas flight, the pilot braked hard before take-off. But on that occasion, the flames engulfed the aircraft, and 55 people died. That disaster led to a range of recommendations from the safety authorities, using more fire retardant materials and allowing more space for evacuation routes.
The UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) also recommended parking and evacuating the plane immediately on the runway, keeping the blaze downwind of the fuselage where possible and distributing the most experienced crew members throughout the plane to aid evacuation.
Tony Cable, a former senior engineer at the AAIB, said the 777 was designed to cope with engine failures and fires. He said: “There’s a fire handle in the cockpit – if the pilot gets a warning that an engine is on fire, he double checks which engine with other crew, then pulls the handle. That shuts off a valve in the fuel tank as well as the electrics and hydraulics, and removes ignition sources and fuel. You can’t control the oil but the quantity of that is limited. And there should be titanium and steel walls that would contain a fire in the engine.”
He said the designs now limit the effects of an engine fire andplanes can fly – and even take-off if already past a certain velocity – on one engine.
However, incidents have occurred of “non-contained” fires that can prove more serious. Cable said: “You could get a very nasty situation if debris comes out and damages the wing or the fuel line. These are very rare – most airline pilots will go an entire career without an engine failure. And aircraft are designed to deal with failures and to make them survivable. Aviation now remains fantastically safe.”