Plane catches fire: British Airways Plane Fire

Published: September 9, 2015

Plane catches fire: British Airways Plane Fire, Dai Whittingham, chief executive of UK Flight Safety Committee, answers questions about the British Airways plane fire and assesses the safety procedures.

It would be pure speculation to say what went wrong. But engines tend to go after being at full power for a few seconds, when a component within it – for whatever reason – can’t cope with the strain. This incident happened during take off – so that tallies – and it points to mechanical failure. Typically, it’s one of the fan disks or blades that break way and causes damage to the engine. So it appears to be a mechanical failure but that’s speculation.

Some people might wonder why the fire did not travel down the fuel line and ignite the tank. The answer is that the jet fuel won’t burn unless it’s vaporised. You could throw a match into a bucket of that fuel and it won’t go up. And for that reason, the cause is unlikely to be a burst fuel line. Because when they burst – which is very rare – the engine tends to just lose power and fail.

What speed was the plane likely to have been doing if it was able to abort the take off?

Before every flight, the pilot will calculate “V1”. This is the speed beyond which the take off can no longer be safely aborted. V1 is different for every flight, depending on factors such as weight and runway length. For a Boeing 777 of this size, V1 would be around 140 knots (approx 160mph).

If a flight is aborted at a speed above V1, a crash is almost guaranteed so the plane really must take off.

:: What would have happened if this plane was travelling above V1 when the fire started?

The plane would have had to take off. But it would not have ended in disaster, most likely. It’s a scenario pilots are trained to deal with. What is certain is that they wouldn’t have shut the engine down during take-off because of the risk of shutting down the wrong engine. They would have waited until they were properly airborne, they’d retract the landing gear, identify the problem and then begin engine shutdown procedures, which includes cutting off fuel and electrical supply to the engine.

It is perfectly possible to land the plane using the other engine.

:: This has been described as a “text-book evacuation”. Do you agree?

“Textbook” would have been if no one had taken their hand luggage with them. It’s really quite wrong and it’s definitely dangerous. Overhead bins get opened, which means escape routes can be impeded and it slows the individual. Furthermore, injuries can be caused by bags being thrown down the slide.

But it looks to have been a fast and professional evacuation. Clearly the crews did what they were meant to do.

:: The emergency slides were deployed on the same side of the plane as the fire. Was this an error?

The slides were also deployed on the other side of the plane – you just can’t see them in the footage.

The priority is to get people off the aircraft as quickly as possible. Only opening one side would have doubled the evacuation time. Don’t forget, this is a big plane so you can quite safely evacuate the plane on the same side as the engine fire.

:: Not all the emergency exits were used. Only the front and the rear doors were opened, for obvious reasons. But who makes these decisions?

All decisions of this nature are made by the captain. However, he has to rely on information and advice he receives from his senior cabin crew, who probably have a better view of the incident.

And of course, they know not to open doors into a blaze.

:: Do you think Boeing-777s fitted with the same GE engines should be grounded until investigators establish the cause of this incident?

No I don’t. These engines are hugely reliable. Failures are very, very rare and it would be an overreaction to ground them.

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