GoAir emergency: How the 'miraculous escape' was just another day at the office for pilots

On Thursday, a GoAir Airbus A320-neo aircraft — performing flight G8-557 from New Delhi to Bangalore — with 188 on board including six crew members and three infants, made an emergency return back to the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport soon after take-off. Normally, this is seen as a rare occurrence which is handled in a fairly routine manner, even though it may appear dramatic.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The new technology Pratt and Whitney Geared Turbo Fan engine powering the A320-neo aircraft in both GoAir and IndiGo's fleet has been facing some teething issues. When the crew received an alert on the Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitoring (ECAM) system they – purely as a precaution given the length of the flight and known issues with the new engine – decided to play it safe and return to New Delhi, where GoAir has a full-fledged maintenance setup.

Going by newspaper reports, it appears as if the passengers had a miraculous escape. As dramatic and scary as it may seem, there is nothing miraculous about an engine failure mid-air; even less so, if it just an alert indication. Aircraft are such finely tuned machines that even minor deviations in performance generate an alert.

All pilots are well-trained to respond calmly in such situations. Be it a full-blown emergency, or a minor indication, they immediately put in place a well-established protocol to analyse the situation, determine if any issues are at hand, address them, and, if needed, return the aircraft and its occupants back to the ground safely.

Aviation experts are frequently amused by the stories that appear, almost daily, it seems, recounting details of so-called miraculous escapes and imagined near disasters. These get translated into sensational reportage that end up scaring the wits out of air travellers.

Coming back to GoAir flight G8-557. Pilots repeatedly practice, in simulators, for all forms of emergencies, including full-blown engine failures on take-off, including the most dangerous of all, engine fire. So frequent is the practice that corrective actions become routine and second nature. Work load is shared between the pilots and their roles are clearly defined in a science called CRM (Crew/Cockpit Resource Management).

In the above video, Turkish Airlines pilots can be seen practicing for an engine failure and fire on take-off on the Airbus A320-neo aircraft, the same type GoAir was operating, and just like the GoAir pilots would have trained for. The engine fails and catches fire (the red indication on the overhead panel) right on take-off at about one minute into the video.

One of the passengers told a newspaper, “There was a huge fire. I could hear people panicking and screaming. I saw the fire lasting for about 30 seconds, and then it was miraculously put off". As mentioned earlier, there is nothing miraculous about it. Like all modern jetliners, the A320 has an elaborate fire-suppression system on-board. In the video, see how calmly the pilots perform their emergency drill. They identify the problem, shut-down the failed engine, cut-off its fuel (the only way to switch off an aircraft engine), and discharge the fire suppression "agents" (first agent one and then agent two). All along, they follow the pilot’s code to first aviate, then navigate, and then communicate. Focus on the job at hand and fly the plane. Communicate with the ATC in short messages, saving time but conveying all the critical and needed information.

If you feel that the Turkish pilots maintained their calm due to this being a training exercise, below is a video of a real-life engine failure and fire on take-off, of a Thomson Air Boeing 757. The video includes live pilot and ATC communication. Hear the calmness of the pilots even as they convey the dreaded MAYDAY — a full emergency.

Hear the minimal communication. Everyone in the system responds in a calm and deliberate manner, going about their tasks; from the pilots, to the ATC, to the airport workers (inspecting the runway) and the emergency personnel. Observe the ATC informing the pilots on available alternate airports to increase their options in dealing with the emergency. Even after the landing, everything is handled in a calm defined manner as if it’s a matter of routine.

In the GoAir case, the pilot did his or her job as trained, but at the end of it, it was an incident that occurred because of a technical indication, and the flight crew taking a precautionary stance.

For passengers, the best thing to do is to remain calm and not panic. Have faith in the pilots; they are trained and empowered to land the plane, and you, safely. From the humans, to the machine and procedures, the entire system is built on the best practices from across the globe, learnt over years.

Watch how passengers in the video below, aboard a Spirit Airlines Airbus, calmly accept an engine failure and a return to Dallas Fort Worth airport. You can hear how the more aviation savvy passengers support other passengers in their efforts to overcome fear and doubt. Air travel remains the safest form of transport by a long margin. Have a nice flight.

The author is an aviation expert based in Bengaluru and writes for Bangalore Aviation

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2017 11:21:52 IST

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