On February 13, 2018, a Boeing 777-222 aircraft operating United Airlines flight 1175 suffered a severe engine failure that nearly resulted in a catastrophe. Over the Pacific Ocean, with nowhere nearby to land and with a plane vibrating extremely hard, the real heroes of this story, the pilots of flight 1175 managed to bring 378 souls safely to the ground. Why did this happen and how did the pilots manage to land the plane in such extreme conditions?
The airplane and the crew members
The plane was a Boeing 777-222 purchased by United Airlines in 1995. This long range aircraft, operating flight 1175 departed from San Francisco International Airport to Honolulu, Hawaii.
On board the aircraft, 15 crew members were responsible for the safe transport of 363 passengers. In the cockpit were three pilots: Captain Christopher Borzu Behnam (aged 57), First Officer Paul Ayers (aged 60) and a jump seat rider, pilot Ed Gagarin who wanted to witness the flight. The presence of a third man in the cockpit would prove to be a huge help on what was to come. The captain was an experienced pilot, with 360 hours on the B777 and over 13,000 flight hours in his entire career. The first officer was also very experienced, with over 10,000 flying hours on the B777 out of a total of 11,318 flying hours in his career.
United Airlines Flight 1175 has taken off
Preparation for take-off went normally. After all the passengers had boarded, First Officer Paul Ayers took off. The pilots contacted the Honolulu frequency for weather information, after which Captain Behnam left the cabin and went to the bathroom.
The engine failure and pilots’ actions
Just three minutes after the captain returned to the cabin, at 36,000 feet, a deafening explosion was heard. Captain Behnam said in an interview: “it felt like the plane hit a brick wall”. The plane began to shake and vibrate violently and loud metal sounds could be heard. On a scale of 1 to 10, the captain said the vibration was 15. The instruments were hard to read because of the strong vibration. After the explosion, the autopilot disconnected and the plane rolled to a 40 degrees bank to the right. Over the Pacific Ocean, at a distance of 120 miles (193 km) from Honolulu airport, the plane became uncontrollable.
Captain Behnam, who also had experience in acrobatic flight, decides to push the left rudder to stop the plane from rolling. The plane stops rolling at that 40-degree angle, after which the captain asks Paul to push the nose of the plane to break the angle of attack. Thirty seconds after impact, the aircraft’s right engine instrument went blank. At this point, the captain knew what he was dealing with, but didn’t understand why the vibration was so strong. After that, the right engine was turned off. As a result, the vibration decreased significantly and the captain applied full thrust on the left engine.
The three pilots in the cockpit worked together to find solutions for the abnormally behaving aircraft. The jump seat rider, Ed Gagarin, contacted Honolulu control and declared an emergency. Eventually, the captain was able to find a balanced position for the aircraft. In the Blancolirio interview, the captain said that controlling the plane at that point was like balancing a ball on a flat plate. Captain Behnam asked Gagarin to go and film the right engine to better understand what was happening. At that point, it was discovered that the engine was missing its cowling. This severely affected the aerodynamics of the plane and caused the engine to shake badly.
Landing at Honolulu Airport
Captain Behnam flew the plane at high speed to get better control of the aircraft. Consequently, the runway had to be long and the landing had to happen in one attempt. Because the autopilot wasn’t working, the captain didn’t take his hand off the yoke or the throttle until landing. Finally, at 12:37 local time according to wikipedia, the plane touched down. 40 minutes after the explosion occurred, United Airlines flight 1175 arrived safely in Honolulu.
Results of the investigation and the aftermath
The NTSB investigation revealed that the incident was caused by a fracture on a blade of the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) PW4077 turbofan engine. As a result, the FAA requested an improvement in the engine inspection method. Following the accident, United Airlines refunded the ticket money to all passengers.
The crew of Flight 1175 was awarded ALPA’s Superior Airmanship Award for their decisions and actions that saved the lives of 378 souls.