Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ending With A Bang

By the end of the trip, I had managed to meet and speak to everyone I sought, and spent some time unashamedly being a tourist. That's all I could reasonably expect, and I had a good time.

In the B737-200 "combi" out of Yellowknife I sat in seat 7F. That put me in the first row of passengers, right behind the bulkhead that separated the self-loading freight from the regular kind, and in the window seat next to the right engine. I told the passenger next to me about my mission in Yellowknife, and that I had enjoyed my stay despite my lack of immediate success. He had lived in Yellowknife for years. I'd seen him at security carrying a bag with a Government of Canada logo on it, so I asked him about that, and he admitted with an only slightly sly grin that he was with Transport Canada Aviation Systems Safety. I managed not to wince at all this time.

We discussed a few companies that might be looking for someone with my qualifications, and I wrote down the names of those people to contact whom I didn't already know. We were happily discussing the relative attitudes towards safety of different companies when what the official report will call "an incident" occurred. About five minutes after takeoff a sudden noise and an unusual vibration shook the whole airframe, eliciting a few screams from the passenger cabin. The vibration settled down and then as the Boeing entered a gentle right bank, a muffled cabin announcement confirmed that the crew had completed a precautionary shutdown of the number two engine -- the one next to me-- and that we were returning to Yellowknife. I hate making PA announcements for abnormal situations. You want to be honest with the passengers, but not scare them and you have to dumb down the information enough that they can understand it. And then you have to reassure them without sounding like a complete dork. I remember the words "this airplane flies very well on one engine." The PA was textbook: what the crew did, why they did it, what we're doing next, time to destination and that there is nothing to worry about. And then there was a cringeworthy second PA right before landing, including the phrase, "everything is going just fine." I can't put my finger on what was so embarrassing about it, but I think if I hadn't known that a seven thirty-seven doesn't require engine power to land, that PA would have scared me more than reassured me. I wonder if anyone has ever done a psychological study of how best to word these things.

Our firetruck escort (you knew there would be firetrucks) confirmed that neither the engine nor the brakes were on fire. It turned out that every passenger in the front row was either a pilot or a mechanic, so everyone in that row and forward knew that the airplane wasn't going anywhere soon. It was the last flight out of the day, but another one was coming in in a couple of hours, so we commandeered that one and took it back to Edmonton. Thus my trip to the 'knife ended in a bang, not a whimper. And speaking of the knife, I did remember to retrieve the confiscated Swiss Army knife on my way through YEG.


Anonymous said...

Hurrah for Swiss Penknife retrieval!
I know you know what you're doing, but I would have found that scary.

Aviatrix said...

Had I been flying, the heartrate-increasing moment would have been the onset of the sound and the accompanying engine gauge indications. As soon as the situation transitions from "What the firetruck is that?" to "problem with engine #2", the decision to shut it down is a no-brainer and the procedure to shut down a misbehaving engine is a thoroughly practised, with (for the airplanes I fly) the first steps done from memory, then verified from a checklist.

So it's an abnormal situation, but one the airplane is designed and the crew trained to handle. A B737 can even complete a takeoff on one engine, if it fails after the airplane is going too fast to stop.

Anonymous said...

"...this airplane flies very well on one engine."
I understand a B767 flies and lands fine on no engines (though takeoff would be a bit of a problem).

Aviatrix said...

Yeah. In fact I could hear the people in the row behind me discussing that during the approach. While I'm sure the 737 will obey the same laws of aerodynamics, I'm thinking that had the pilot appended "In fact, it can fly and land on no engines at all!" to his 'reassuring' PA, that it would have elicited some criticism during the postflight debriefing with the base supervisor.