Here’s a pop quiz! Name three differences
between an airplane and your car. If one of your answers was “I don’t fall ten thousand
feet when I run out of gas,” you and I clearly think alike. But really, planes are pretty
good at staying up in the air when an engine goes down.
So, how do they do it? First off, it’s essential to distinguish
between an engine failing and needing to be shut down. That might seem strange at first;
you wouldn’t turn off your car while driving, after all, but there are a lot of reasons
pilots might need to shut the engines down while still in the air.
One of the most common causes is that something got into the engine’s air intake. Jet engines
work by mixing fuel with air and igniting it. The force of this explosion is what pushes
the plane through the air. The internal combustion engine in most cars
works on basically the same principle. The difference here is that in a car, the explosive
force is contained inside the engine and used to move the pistons and gears that spin your
wheels. Also like your car, a jet engine needs an opening on the front to maintain a constant
flow of air. As anyone who’s ever driven through a sandstorm will happily confirm, getting
dirt in your engine doesn’t exactly make it run any smoother.
In an airplane, birds are among the most significant hazard when it comes to plugging up the intake,
— and it’s not too good for the birds either. Hail stones are bad too. Ash from volcanic
eruptions and large forest fires are a less common, but no less serious, hazard to aircraft
in flight. Think of the air intake as the plane’s videogame
weak spot, and you get the idea. The ingestion of foreign objects can result
in the engine becoming starved of oxygen, interrupting the reaction and causing what’s
known as a flameout: literally the flame in the engine going out.
One somewhat humorous example of this can be seen in the US Air Force’s A-10 Warthog
aircraft. Due do a design oversight, this plane’s large, fuselage mounted engines
had the habit of ingesting the smoke produced by its own firepower. This would result in
a flameout and a very unhappy pilot. While this problem was eventually fixed, it shows
that a bit of smoke can be a big problem, even for top-of-the-line military hardware.
Flameouts can also be caused by an equipment failure on the plane itself, typically in
the fuel pump or other engine components. Regardless of the cause, the effects are typically
the same across the board. When a flameout occurs, the pilot’s first
action is to shut off the fuel being pumped to the misbehaving turbine, quickly and quietly
shutting it down. At which point, the pilot will calmly inform the passengers of the emergency
and descend to a lower altitude as the crew figures out what exactly went wrong.
The plane will often have to make an emergency landing, but the descent isn’t exactly going
to be a wild ride. The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial planes to be able to fly
and land safely with only one engine operational. The stricken aircraft will usually be rerouted
to the nearest airport, and emergency responders will be standing by; but this is mainly a
precaution rather than a necessity. Engine failure is no laughing matter, but neither
is it a guaranteed catastrophe. Have you ever experienced an emergency landing?
Let me know about it in the comments! It’s so easy to land a plane on one engine
that many autopilot systems can manage it without assistance from the humans in the
cockpit. Sleeping passengers, or anyone really engrossed in the cat videos on their phone,
might not even know there was an emergency until they’re on the ground.
Now, I’ve told you that losing one engine isn’t going to send your plane hurtling out
of the sky, but what about the worst-case scenario. What happens if all the engines
were to go out at once? This kind of total failure is extremely unlikely,
but there have been isolated incidents of that very thing happening to aircraft in flight.
For example, Air Canada Flight 143 suffered a double engine flameout in 1983. A series
of problems, including technical issues, miscommunication, maintenance errors, and faulty Metric conversions
lead to the plane leaving the tarmac without enough fuel to reach their destination.
Predictably, this led to further problems. While passing over the small town of Red Lake,
Ontario, an alarm sounded in the cockpit. At first, they thought it was a problem with
the fuel pumps, but within seconds of rerouting to Winnipeg, the left engine went dark. The
right soon followed. Oh boy. So, this is the part where Flight 143 dropped
like an aluminum rock, right? Well, no. A plane’s engines may push it
forward, but they aren’t the part that keeps it in the air. That would be the wings, which
provide lift when air passes under them. Losing its engines cost Flight 143 the ability to
climb or accelerate, but it could still glide. Running out of fuel also caused the 767 to
lose all power, disabling not only the lights and radio, but the controls and instrument
panel as well. Fortunately, like most modern airliners, the
plane was equipped with what’s known as a ram air turbine or RAT. These are small wind
turbines, often concealed behind a panel in the fuselage, that can be extended in the
event of a complete power loss. This device allowed the pilots of Air Canada
Flight 143 to safely navigate to, and land in, an airfield-turned-racetrack outside the
town of Gimli, Manitoba. Flight 143 did end up partially losing power
again during the final approach. This time it was due to the aircrafts reduced velocity,
preventing the RAT from spinning at full speed. Despite these challenges, the plane was able
to set down with only minor damage. After undergoing repairs, it was able to continue
flying until it’s retirement in 2008, twenty-five years after the emergency landing. The plane,
which was officially registered under the name C-GAUN, earned a new moniker after the
incident, The Gimli Glider. Oh, Canada.
Now, you might’ve noticed the conga line of problems that led to Flight 143’s awkward
landing. This near disaster was the result of an unlikely sequence of events, giving
you an idea of how many different things need to go wrong before a complete engine failure
can occur. Tighter regulations and improved maintenance
procedures have mitigated the risk substantially, although there’s still the occasional fluke.
For example, the famous “Miracle on the Hudson” in January 2009 occurred after an Airbus A320
collided with a flock of geese shortly after taking off from New York City’s LaGuardia
Airport. The accident resulted in the loss of both engines and forced the pilot, Chesley
“Sully” Sullenberger, to make a risky water landing in the nearby Hudson river.
Despite the below zero temperatures and the extreme difficulty of the landing, all one
hundred and fifty-five passengers and crew were evacuated onto boats and carried to safety.
While many people had to be treated for hypothermia, and there were several injuries, only five
of them were considered severe. Multiple engine failures have the potential
to become very dangerous, but the good news is that they’re extremely rare.
Now, that covers planes, but what would happen if a helicopter lost its engines in flight?
As it turns out, helicopters have an even easier time landing without power than planes
do. A helicopter’s rotors act like a combination propeller and wing, providing both lift and
forward momentum. While this might seem like bad news at first,
helicopters have a saving grace in what’s known as autorotation. If the engine’s revolution
per minute ever drops below a predetermined threshold, a mechanism will be tripped, disconnecting
the main rotor from the engine. This allows it to continue spinning independently on its
own momentum, buying the pilot time to regain control of their aircraft.
If left uncontrolled, the helicopter would tumble out of the sky, very much dropping
like the before mentioned aluminum rock. Fortunately, this rarely happens, as helicopter pilots
are trained to pitch the aircraft slightly down, allowing them to maintain control throughout
its descent. The correct angle will vary depending on the
model of helicopter, but that information is available in the helicopter’s operation
manual. You got time to open the book? Accounting for wind speed and other variables can be
challenging at first. However, autorotation landings are considered to be one of the most
straightforward helicopter procedures, and all helicopter pilots have to complete one
to get their license. No matter how you fly, I wouldn’t worry
too much about a complete engine failure, since they’re exceptionally rare and surprisingly
easy to recover from. Plus you get to walk away with a great story to share.
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