Sunday, January 20, 2008

Boeing, Boeing

Emergency vehicles chase the Boeing 777 on which MD
was a passenger, September 14th 2004 (view from window).

Last Thursday's crash of a Boeing 777 at Heathrow due to some kind of engine failure reminded me of my own hairy moment in one of these aircraft. Back in 2004 I was heading off to a conference in Singapore. I had boarded the aircraft at Seattle international airport (SeaTac) and after settling into my seat had started to snooze lightly. I was aware of the engines accelerating for take off and as we hit V1 I was jolted into hyper-vigilant awareness by a loud, all-permeating vibration. My mechanical intuition told me that something was deeply wrong. But the noise subsided, the plane levelled off and for awhile all seemed normal. Then, after 15-20 minutes I noticed that were no longer flying west but instead flying north over Puget Sound. A few minutes later the pilot announced that there was a problem with one of the engines and and that he was "doing tests".  As we continued flying it became very evident that everytime one of the engines was throttled up the vibration became apparent. Subesequently the pilot announced that we had a serious problem and that we were going to make an emergency back at SeaTac after we'd dumped our fuel load. He also urged us to remain calm. And thus we flew around in a big circle, on one engine, for more than half an hour while the flight engineer sprayed 40,000+ gallons of fuel over the Pacific North West. Some of the passengers were less than calm and there was a lot of praying, Bible clutching and frantic crossings going on. Eventually we landed back at SeaTac where we surrounded by a fleet of yellow emergency vehicles and firefighters wearing aluminium suits that will withstand temperatures close to the surface of the sun.

My fellow passengers and I were eventually evacuated (no fun inflatable slides, unfortunately), put up in hotel accommodation and flown out the following day when a new plane was located. I asked the pilot if the nature of the problem had been discovered. He replied that the fan blades on one of the engines had broken up and that this was a bewildering incident as that particular airplane was brand new. I continued on my journey without incident. By way of compensation, I was allowed to sit in the cockpit and wear the pilot's hat. Needless to say I was not particularly reassured. I think I may avoid Boeing 777s from now on...

Mad Dog Airways

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