On Sunday evening 13th July 2014, the Air India’s flight AI-144, a B-777, was ready for a routine flight from Newark to Mumbai with 300 passengers and 15 crew. The weather in New Jersey was heavy passing showers here and there.
It was a routine departure at about 5 pm (local time) for a long 15-16 hrs flight to Bombay nee Mumbai. The aircraft naturally was at its maximum take off weight, as it was fully loaded with the fuel required for this long transcontinental flight.
The take off run was a normal routine one. Immediately on lift off the worst nightmare of a pilot, the loss of an engine at maximum take off weight, happened. The left engine caught fire, and at the same time the cockpit engine fire warnings did not function. The passengers and crew sitting on the left side were horrified to see flames from the left engine. Other airplanes and Air Traffic Control warned the Pilot of the engine being on fire. The Pilots till that time unaware of the engine fire, checked up and carried out the emergency drills as per the required procedures. The B-777 is a 2 engine aircraft, and loosing one engine (50% power) at the maximum a/c weight on take off is a nightmare for the best of Pilots and in the best of circumstances.
In such an emergency, the Pilots will first think of making the aircraft light, which is done by dumping the extra fuel. For this Pilots need to climb up to a designated minimum height and dump the fuel in areas already specified by the local airport authorities. The time to reach the dumping height and area could have taken 15 to 30 minutes, because of heavy weight and loss of an engine. The actual fuel dump can take another 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the amount of fuel to be dumped out. The exercise of dumping fuel to lighten the aircraft would have taken any thing around 60 to 70 minutes, a valuable time they did not have.
The Pilots had a serious emergency of an engine having been on fire at hand. This could have caused, secondary as yet unknown failures. They had to take an instant decision, which they rightfully took to land as soon as possible, rather than use up precious time to try and dump fuel.
The immediate landing back, of course had its own problems. The very high landing weight. This in turn will need the aircraft to be landed at a much higher speed. The immediate anxiety of the Pilots in this case would have been three fold. Firstly, will the airplane stop in the available runway length, landing at about 200 Knots (which is 370 kms/hr), the minimum speed required at the weight. Secondly, will the landing gear take the load of landing at such a high speed and weight (85 tonnes more than the maximum design landing weight). Thirdly, they were flying only on one engine, which has its own problems of aircraft handling and control.
The Pilots averted a major emergency into becoming a possible catastrophe by landing the aircraft successfully back. The handling skills and good cool airmanship displayed by the Pilots was the primary reason of this emergency being converted into just an incident, which the Indian media thought was of no consequence of being reported or being commented upon. The visual media (all channels of TV) was only concerned on a non issue of why one ‘Ved Pratap Vaidik’ met a certain ‘ Hafiz Saeed’ on a visit to Pakistan. The print media was merely interested in printing and commenting some dubious statistics where the ATC Controllers and Pilots have erred. Regrettably the media just shut their eyes to this incidence as it made no juicy news for them. They were not interested in how a major catastrophe was averted and lives of 315 persons were saved by the good professional handling and competent decisions of AIR INDIA PILOTS.
My congratulations to Capt Gautam Verma and his crew (2nd Commander Capt Niranjan Singh & First Officers Capt Pankaj Wadhawan & Capt Shilpika Das) for displaying airmanship and professional competence of the highest order in handling a most difficult situation competently and successfully.
It is disappointing that the PRO of Air India has also failed in bringing the true facts of the incidence to the notice of the visual and print media and getting the competence and proficiency of their employees due national recognition. It should also be a matter of great national concern that the Indian media had nothing to say about the competent handling of this grave in flight situation and preventing it becoming a catastrophe.