Updated: Jul 28, 2020
June 1987, Vancouver International Airport, weather good – a warm summer evening: light westerly winds, good visibility, and a cloud base at 2,000ft. A Boeing 747 is turning onto the runway ready for take-off. Everything is normal — the flight crew: George Grey, Brian Martin and John Parslow, are running through the last of their litany of drills and checks. ‘Before take-off check complete, Skip,’ says John, the flight engineer, from his seat behind the two pilots.
‘Speedbird 200, clear take-off, wind 250 at 15 knots.’ This is the routine instruction from Air Traffic Control (ATC). Ahead, lay a flight of 4,150 nautical miles to London, Heathrow. Captain George Grey takes a quick look round the cockpit to ensure all is as it should be. ‘OK – everyone ready? Standing them up.’ He pushes the four thrust levers forward until they are vertical, then pauses, to allow the engines to spool up.
‘Speedbird 200 rolling,’ Brian, his co-pilot, confirms to ATC, as they slowly begin their take-off roll down runway 26L.
‘Engines stable,’ calls John.
‘Set power,’ responds George, pushing the thrust levers further forward to apply full power while John makes minor adjustments to ensure that exactly the right power is set on each of the four engines.
Brian concentrates on the airspeed indicator, ‘Airspeed building.’ A pause – then, ‘80 knots.’ They continue to accelerate, the runway streaming past the cockpit windows faster and faster. ‘Vee one,’ he calls again. This is the decision speed after which it is impossible to stop on the runway if anything goes wrong. George removes his right hand from the thrust levers. ‘Rotate,’ he eases back on the control column and they lift off on their way to London.
Suddenly the aircraft shudders and a series of loud bangs comes from one of the engines. The fire warning bell sounds and the heavy 747 lurches to the left, forcing George to push hard on the right rudder pedal to keep the aircraft straight. ‘Vee two,’ calls Brian and presses the master warning light to silence the bell. George focuses all his attention on maintaining V2, the correct climb-out speed – neither too fast nor too slow. Optimum speed is critical now. It must be exactly right for the best climb gradient.
‘Positive rate of climb.’
‘Gear up,’ orders George. Brian reaches forward and moves the gear lever on the instrument panel to the up position to retract the undercarriage. Suddenly another bang shakes the aircraft, then another and another, followed by a horrible rattling noise.
‘Fire warning on number one engine,’ shouts John. ‘And we’re losing power on number two.’
‘Shit!’ mutters George. Then aloud, ‘Wait till we get to 400 feet.’ After what seems an age, he says, ‘OK, 400 feet. Now. What’s the situation on those engines?’
‘Number one’s still on fire,’ John replies, ‘and we’ve lost all power on number two.’
‘OK – fire drill number one engine.’ Then, to leave Brian and John free to deal with the engine fire, George adds, ‘My R/T,’ and calls ATC on the radio-telephone, ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Speedbird 200, two of my engines have failed. We’re climbing straight ahead. Standby.’
The co-pilot and flight engineer go through the well-rehearsed fire drill, closing the thrust lever, switching off the fuel supply, pulling the fire handle on the panel above their heads and pressing the button to fire the extinguisher within the cowling into the engine. John reads out the checklist to confirm each item has been completed. ‘Fire drill complete on number one engine, the fire’s out. Shall I shut down the number two?’
‘Is it giving any power?’ George asks.
‘OK, shut it down.’ George very gently nurses the stricken aircraft upwards on its reluctant climb. Though the shaking and shuddering is diminishing, they are still only a few hundred feet above the water. Moreover, not far ahead, as George well knows, lie the mountains of Vancouver Island. On a clear day they are magnificent but not today with so much cloud around. ‘Tell ATC I may have to turn slightly towards the north to stay over the water clear of high ground.’
Brian does so. Then ATC calls, ‘Speedbird 200, Vancouver Tower. We saw you hit some birds on take-off, also fire on your left side from one of the engines. What are your intentions?’
To stay airborne is the unspoken thought! ‘We’re only just managing to climb. We need to start dumping fuel.’
‘OK, Speedbird. Change to Departure Control. We’ve advised them about your mayday.’
Slowly the aircraft edges upwards. George’s right leg is locked rigid on the rudder pedals as he strains to keep the aircraft straight. After what seems another age, they reach 1,000 feet. George lowers the nose a degree or two to start accelerating. Gradually, as the speed increases, they retract the wing flaps, stage by stage and, once they are in, start to climb again.
‘Right,’ George says, ‘Let’s review. She’s flying OK. I’ve wound in full rudder trim and reduced the power slightly. She’s climbing better now, and easier to keep straight. We’re visual, we’ve got clear water ahead. No obstacles. It’s safe on this heading for a while. In a moment, Brian, I’ll hand over to you. Tell me when you’re ready.’
Brian settles himself more comfortably in his seat. ‘OK, I’m ready. I have control.'
‘You have control. Keep her climbing straight ahead. Stay parallel with the shoreline. Don’t try any turns yet. I’ll stay on the R/T and tell ATC what we’re doing. Any problems let me know.’ George turns to the flight engineer but is interrupted.
‘Speedbird 200.’ It is Departure Control. ‘Do you require radar assistance?’
‘Not now,’ George tells them. ‘We’re at 1,200 feet, visual over the water, and climbing – just! I’m turning now onto heading 280. Please watch us and warn if you think we’re nearing high ground.’ Then to his flight engineer: ‘Right John, let’s recap.’
‘I’ve completed the fire drill on number one engine. The fire’s out, I’ve shut down the number two engine. All secondary actions are complete. Hydraulics are all normal, but we’re down to two generators. I’ve completed the drill and shed all unnecessary electrical loads. Can’t see any other damage at the moment.’
‘Good. We’ll have to dump fuel. Can you calculate how much we need to dump to get down to landing weight, and how long it’ll take.’
‘Captain,’ says the Cabin Services Director (CSD) hovering discretely at the back of the cockpit. He hesitates to interrupt but knows something needs to be said to calm the passengers. ‘They’re getting very anxious back there. Could you make an announcement as soon as possible?’
‘Of course – but not right now. Tell ‘em we’ve had an engine failure – we’re flying safely – I’ll explain what’s happening in a few minutes.’
‘Speedbird 200,’ ATC interrupts again. ‘Be advised fuel dumping is not permitted in your area. You’ll have to climb to 10,000 feet and go out over sea.’
‘Can’t do that.’ states George, calmly but firmly. ‘Right now, I can hardly climb at all. If we don’t dump, we’ll never get to 5,000 feet, let alone 10,000, or even past these mountains. I’m way overweight for landing. We must dump fuel urgently. And if I try to turn, I think we’ll start going downhill.’
‘Skipper,’ says John, ‘We need to dump 55 tonnes. That’ll take 30 minutes. When do you want me to start?’
‘As soon as possible but, first, please go back into the cabin. Let me know what you can see. Look for any fire damage, holes in the engine cowls and wing, that sort of thing. And ask the cabin crew if they saw anything. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to the passengers. Brian, your R/T. Put her on autopilot and keep her climbing as best you can straight ahead. Just stay visual, parallel to the coast.’
The co-pilot engages the autopilot and selects heading mode. George collects his thoughts. If the crew are feeling rattled, the passengers must be really scared. He picks up the PA handset. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain. Please listen carefully. Despite the loud bangs you’ve all heard, we’re flying safely and climbing out over the water. Unfortunately, we hit some birds on take-off and they have damaged an engine, but we still have enough power on the others. We’ll be dumping some fuel to get down to landing weight. This will take about half an hour. Then we’ll return to Vancouver. I know how alarmed you must be, but please rest assured, we have everything well under control. We’re flying very nicely, and it won’t be long before you’re all safely back on the ground.’ George puts the handset down, thinking; ‘Better not to tell them the whole truth just yet!’
‘So how did that go down?’ he asks as the CSD reappears in the cockpit.
‘They seem a little happier,’ comes the reply, ‘But the ones at the back on the left side, by the windows, saw the fire and are very shaken.’
‘I’m not surprised!’ George says. ‘For your ears only – we’ve lost two engines and are only just able to maintain height. We’ll get back all right, but it won’t be easy. Secure the cabin and brief the cabin crew for an emergency landing, but please do it discreetly. It’ll be a good half hour before we can start an approach. I’ll let you know when to brief the passengers for the landing, meanwhile keep them calm and let me know from time to time how they are. Oh – and also when I need to say some more calming words.’
George turns back to their immediate problems. Brian has everything under control on autopilot. They are nearly up to 1,500 feet and well clear of the high ground. There is solid cloud above, high ground on either side, and sea below – it’s like flying through a wide letterbox slit. They must keep visual and stay over the water to be certain of avoiding the nearby mountains.
John, who’s gone back into the cabin to inspect the engines, returns and reports no obvious damage to the number one engine and no signs of fire. The cowling on number two is holed in several places but the wing looks OK. He sits down at the engineer’s panel and re-checks his fuel dump calculations. ‘OK, skipper. 55 tonnes it is. It’ll take thirty minutes. Shall I start the fuel dumping checklist?’
‘Yes. We won’t ask ATC; I’ll just tell them.’ Normally, they would need to climb to at least 10,000 feet, ask permission to dump, and be directed to a suitable area. But in this situation, still below 2,000 feet and surrounded by mountains, there is no guarantee the two remaining engines are totally undamaged, and it is best to get back on the ground as soon as they safely can.
John reads the checklist. ‘OK to start?’
‘Yes, I’ve told ATC —and told them we have to do it now.’ Gradually, as the fuel pumps out and the aircraft weight reduces, they are able to climb and turn without losing height. They start a slow turn towards the southeast, back over the water between Vancouver Island and the mainland. They tell ATC they are still visual and must remain so. They need to make long turns up and down the Strait, over the water, until they’re down to landing weight. George also wants to stay within twenty miles of the airport in case they need to land in a hurry. ATC are very helpful and tell them all other traffic is being held well clear.
George picks up the PA. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain again. We’ve started dumping fuel to reduce the aircraft weight ready for landing. It will be some twenty minutes before we can start our approach. Those of you with window seats behind the wings will see fuel vapour pouring out from the dump pipes. This is normal and nothing to worry about. The cabin crew will now brief you about the precautions you need to take before we land. The details are very important, and I ask you please to pay close attention to them. We expect our landing to be entirely normal, but we still need everything ready just in case we have to evacuate the aircraft in a hurry. The airport is ready for our landing, and our ground staff are standing by to look after you when you leave the aircraft.’
He hopes that was sufficiently reassuring, and they continue circling up and down over the water. ‘Dumping complete, skipper,’ says John. ‘Ready for the top of descent and approach checklists?’
‘Yes, please,’ says George, ‘But, first, let’s do a briefing.’ They discuss the safety heights (the heights they must achieve to remain safe above the high ground, most of which they are well below), the vital need to remain visual clear of the mountains, which runway to use, the radio navigation aids they need, and the procedure in case they have to go around for another approach. ‘We’ll ask for runway 26L. It’s 11,500 feet long, more than enough. ATC have confirmed that all emergency services are ready.’ Then he adds, ‘OK, Brian, I’ll take her now. I have control – thanks for minding the shop. Tell ATC we’re ready to start an approach. We need vectors to give us at least a 10-mile final on the ILS for 26L.’
The radar controller gives them radar vectors (headings to steer) that take them well south around the airfield. Then he turns them northward to establish on a long final approach for the Instrument Landing System (ILS) that will give radio guidance down to the runway. ‘Change now to Tower, one-one-eight point seven, they’re all ready for you.’ Brian changes frequency as instructed.
‘Speedbird 200, Vancouver Tower. You’re cleared to land runway 26L, wind 240 less than 10 knots. Emergency services are standing by half-way down the runway on the left side. They’ll follow you down the last part of your landing roll. Confirm it’s the number one and number two that have failed and please advise if you have any signs of fire.’
Brian confirms that all fire warnings have stopped, and they expect a normal landing. George asks the fire services to inspect both engines on the left side after they land in case there is fire and they must evacuate. He disengages the autopilot, lines the aircraft up on the approach, and asks for the landing checklist. With the wheels now down, he starts to descend towards the runway. ‘You can wind the rudder trim out now, John,’ George says. This done, he must again press hard on the right rudder pedal to balance the thrust from the good engines on the right side and keep the aircraft straight. He concentrates totally now on the runway ahead, making small power adjustments to control their speed and descent path.
As they come over the runway, about to touchdown, a vehicle runs onto the runway and stops. What the hell is he up to! ‘Standby to go-around,’ George calls, then, ‘Go-around, flaps 20.’ He increases power on the good engines, raises the nose into a climb, and has to push even harder on the rudder pedal as the power comes on. Brian moves the flap lever to the 20-degree position, then calls, ‘Positive climb.’
‘Gear up,’ replies George, and they climb away. ‘Tell ’em I want a left-hand circuit and get that ruddy vehicle clear!’ They climb slowly, turn left, level out at 1,500 feet and fly south around the airfield to attempt another landing. The crew must go through the whole approach and landing procedure again, by which time George’s right leg will be aching with fatigue! They line up once more, ten miles out from the runway, and begin the long approach for the second time.
‘One hundred above,’ John calls out. ‘Decide.’
‘Land,’ says George. As they come over the runway, he slowly reduces the engine power, eases the main wheels onto the ground, lowers the nose and calls for idle reverse on the operative engines, three and four. When the 747 has slowed to taxi speed, he turns left off the runway onto the taxiway so that the damaged engines are downwind from the fuselage. The Fire Chief comes on the radio and confirms no sign of fire. George breathes a huge sigh of relief, calls the CSD on the interphone and tells him they will be keeping the passengers on board. He knows an emergency evacuation always results in minor injuries.
He then turns to Brian, ‘Ask ATC for a tug to tow us in.’ He puts the parking brake on while they wait for it to be coupled up, picks up the PA and reassures the passengers that they are down safely. He thanks them all for remaining so calm and instructs them to remain seated while the aircraft is towed in. But in the cockpit George sits bathed in sweat, it drips off his nose, it’s in his eyes, his shirt is soaked. His right leg aches. He feels utterly limp. Gradually the tension eases. He grins weakly at his fellow crew members who are equally exhausted. Then he feels a hand on his shoulder.
‘Well done, everyone. Good control of the aircraft, George, well managed emergency procedures.’ It is the instructor; they are in a simulator at the airline’s training centre and have been on the ground the whole time. But the reality has been overwhelming. It was one of the regular training exercises that all crews undertake every six months to help them remain sharp, ready for the real thing – the genuine emergency.
The beer will taste extra good this evening.