Opinion and Editorial

How scared should you be about an engine failure?

Tom Bunn
Filed on February 22, 2021

Now, we have gone for 19 years without a crash of a major US airline.

If the Denver 777 incident has you worried about engine failure, consider this. I joined Pan Am in 1965. In those early days of jet aviation, there was at least one crash every year in the US. In fact, Pan Am had a crash almost every year. You may remember the Pan Am slogan: “Pan Am, the world’s most experienced airline.” Each time we crashed the inside joke was, “Pan Am, the world’s most experienced airline, reports another experience.” But in the late 1970s, something remarkable happened. An entire year passed without a crash in the US. I thought, “Wow. This is amazing. A whole year with no crashes.”

Now, we have gone for 19 years without a crash of a major US airline. The planes are that much better. The pilots are that much better. Due to training in flight simulators every pilot — even a new one — has more experience dealing with emergencies than a 30-year veteran used to. Investment in safety systems like the Ground Proximity Warming System and the Traffic Collision Avoidance System are paying off. Engine performance is constantly tracked. If an engine’s performance moves out of the expected range, an inspection is done inside the engine. As a result, problems are detected early.

Since every airliner can fly on one engine, an engine failure is not a life-threatening situation. The pilots simply do what they did in the simulator. I recall talking to a pilot who had an actual failure. He said, “It just seemed like I was in the simulator. It really didn’t get me excited.”

When there is an engine fire, a red light is illuminated on the instrument panel and an alarm bell sounds. The first thing pilots do is silence the bell. There is a lesson here. The amygdala in the brain is like the fire detector on the engine. When either the amygdala or the fire detector senses something abnormal, it causes alarm. Alarm gets our attention. We then need to identify the problem and to determine what action to take. That requires clear thinking, but clear thinking is not possible in a state of alarm. The key factor in successful emergency management is the alarm-to-curiosity shift. In the cockpit, the pilots press a button that silences the alarm bell. In a person, the parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to shift alarm to curiosity automatically. Continued alarm leads to high anxiety and possibly to panic. If your alarm is not shifting to curiosity, my book Panic Free details how to establish it.

To deal with the Denver engine fire, the pilots did in the airliner what they practised in the simulator. After silencing the alarm, they shut the failed engine down. They disconnected the fuel, electrical, pneumatic, and hydraulic lines to the plane. They discharged a fire extinguisher. The fire visible in the video was probably burning of the engine’s lubricating oil and no threat to a plane.

A couple of my fear of flying clients emailed asking what if this had happened over water. Every overwater flight is planned for an engine failure to take place anywhere on the route and still be able to land safely.

A therapist and retired airline captain, Tom Bunn has dedicated over 35 years advancing the treatment of flight phobia.

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