For the past several nights, television news in the U.S. has replayed terrifying footage of an engine on a United Airlines jet, in flames in flight along with scenes of huge bits of the engine scattered across a Colorado neighborhood. Social media has blown up, so to speak, with commentary on the safety of the Boeing 777, one of the world’s most reliable and common long-haul aircraft, while talking heads have tut-tutted about Boeing’s safety record, especially in the wake of the 737 Max grounding.
But in most cases, they have the story exactly wrong, especially online. Here’s what we know. A United Airlines Boeing 777-200 equipped with Pratt & Whitney 4000-series engines en route from Denver to Honolulu on Feb. 20 experienced an engine failure in its number 2 engine in flight. The crew performed a safe emergency landing, and all 231 passengers and 10 crew disembarked without injuries. Many of those passengers continued on to Hawaii later that day on a different aircraft.
We at Airline Weekly run the risk, like much of business-to-business media, of sounding like apologists for the industries we cover. But in this case, much of the coverage on TV and in print and especially on social media has been hysterical and alarmist, and is just wrong. And in the interest of full disclosure, I worked on United Airlines’ communications team for a year ending in 2019.
First, reports calling into question the safety of the 777. Boeing has built more than 1,600 777s since the aircraft’s introduction in the 1990s. It is one of the most common long-haul aircraft, celebrated by airlines for its economics and reliability and by passengers for its comfort. The preliminary National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) finding is that nothing in the airframe — built by Boeing — was responsible for the incident, and the airframe sustained minor damage from the incident.
Of those roughly 1,600 777s (including freighters), fewer than 150 were equipped with the Pratt & Whitney engines on the United aircraft. Most airlines opted for General Electric or Rolls-Royce engines. All the Pratt & Whitney-equipped aircraft have now been grounded. United is the only airline that flies that type in the U.S., and a spokesperson said the 24 United currently operates and the 28 in storage have been grounded. Japan Airlines also has grounded its fleet.
Pratt & Whitney said it is working with the NTSB on the investigation, as is usual in accident investigations. Boeing confirms that worldwide 69 Pratt & Whitney-equipped 777s are in service and 59 are in storage (because the Covid pandemic has reduced demand for air travel), and these aircraft have been temporarily grounded. In other words, contrary to some reports, the issue is not with the Boeing airframe but with this particular Pratt & Whitney engine, and the incident is being investigated.
Yes, there have been incidents with the Pratt & Whitney 4000-series engine before. The FAA has required more closer inspections of the type’s fan blades during maintenance. The full NTSB investigation will reveal when this particular engine last underwent maintenance or was inspected, but it’s too soon to lay blame on the airline or the manufacturer or the maintenance facility.
Commentators have been calling the United incident an “uncontained engine failure.” This appears not to be true. On the contrary, it was a contained engine failure, or so it seems right now. The NTSB is known for its thorough, methodical, and time-consuming investigations. But what the agency has said so far is that two fan blades appear to have cracked, possibly from metal fatigue. One blade broke and was caught in the engine’s containment ring. (What you see turning at the front of a jet engine is called a “fan,” comprised of several blades.)
Videos of the engine on fire were right — the engine’s combustion chamber, normally shrouded from view, came into sight before the pilots shut the engine down. When the engine failed, huge parts of its shrouding (called “cowling”) and the giant inlet ring up front fell off and landed in a neighborhood in Colorado. But this was not an uncontained engine failure, as happened in 2018 on a Southwest Boeing 737-700. In that case, pieces of the engine escaped the containment devices and pierced the fuselage, causing the death of one passenger. As the NTSB noted, the fuselage of the United 777 showed only minor damage.
In other words, the story here is that the safety systems on the engine and the aircraft performed as they were designed to in an emergency. And more heroically, the flight crew did as they were trained and returned the aircraft safely to Denver. Not a single passenger or crew member was injured. That’s probably less exciting than the story some are trying to gin up, but it’s far more reassuring in an age when mobile phone video can dictate storylines.