Viewpoint

What Happened In Vegas?

A screaming child or an overly loud and inane conversation might make the list, but ‘explosion’ must surely be at the top of ‘things you don’t want to hear during take off’.

Various passengers who were interviewed after safely disembarking British Airways Flight 2276 all described a loud bang as the jet reached 90mph on the runway at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The London Gatwick-bound aircraft was thankfully kept on the ground by veteran British pilot Chris Henkey, who was on his penultimate flight before retiring from 40 years of service with British Airways.

The left engine of the 777-200ER, one of two General Electric GE90-85Bs, was engulfed in flames within seconds of the bang and initial investigations point towards an explosion in the engine which was not contained, with component debris scattered across the runway and flung into the fuselage of the plane.

The preliminary investigation conducted by the US's National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that “multiple” breaches had taken place:

“Initial examination of the left engine revealed multiple breaches of the engine case in the area around the high pressure compressor. Examination of the material recovered from the runway found several pieces of the high pressure compressor spool (approximately 7-8in in length).”

All 157 passengers and 13 crew members escaped, with twenty-seven people sustaining minor injuries, mainly abrasions occurring on the inflatable chutes.

The £170 million jet, which entered service in February 1997, was substantially damaged. As well as the total loss of the engine, the aircraft fuselage structure surrounding the engine, the inboard section of the left wing and the pylon were severely affected.

It may be up to a year before the full report is available, such is the inherent complexity of the issue, but there could be long-term ramifications for the MRO industry and way maintenance is carried out – especially if the final report reveals some form of mechanical or component-fatigue failure as the root cause of the incident.

What is interesting at this stage is that the high pressure compressor, pieces of which breached the engine casing and could potentially have severed fuel lines and vital wiring systems, is designed not to ever break down, let alone break apart.

The engine, which is at this stage is likely to still undergoing a full teardown, could have been damaged by a foreign object such as a bird, but investigators need to compile a full analysis on all the parts, checking age and maintenance history, to rule out a maintenance fault.

A secondary issue is that of the fire suppression equipment, which was deployed but clearly didn’t work as the plane was engulfed in flames. If it weren’t for the swift and accurate actions of the pilot and crew, the fire would have soon penetrated the cabin and caused loss of life.

Until the report is made available, questions will be asked about similar engines and their safety. Current generation Boeing 777s are powered by the GE90-115B but a significant number of GE90-85B engines are in global service.

A GE spokesman said: “Based on the engine fleet's service history, we are not aware of any operational issues that would hazard the continued safe flight of aircraft powered by these engines.”

Another final issue raised by this incident is that of passengers refusing to leave carry-on luggage behind, thereby blocking and delaying other passengers from exiting the plane. Should new rules be laid down allowing for legal action against those who insist on taking their luggage in emergency situations? Public endangerment would likely be the charge… but that’s a debate for another Talking Point.

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