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The JetBlue Emergency Landing: A Pilot’s Perspective

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JetBlue LogoOn September 18, JetBlue Flight 1416, a twin engine Airbus A320, departed from the Long Beach, California airport on schedule, but then suddenly returned to make an emergency landing back in Long Beach. The apparent reason: engine failure. This all happened fairly quickly.

The plane took off at 9:17 am and returned to the airport by 9:30 am. The aircraft landed safely. While the plane returned without incident, in the world of social media, the emergency landing didn’t happen without video. A number of passengers posted their cell phone videos on YouTube. In some, you can hear the flight attendants repeatedly shouting “Brace!” to passengers. Then, after the plane safely lands, you can see and hear the passengers clapping.

From A Pilot’s Perspective

But a number of questions about what happened on board Flight 1416 and how the crew responded still remain. Captain Tom Bunn, a veteran captain and former Pan Am pilot, weighs in on what might have happened as well as the crew’s response:

Just watching the viral video was enough. Passengers went through a nightmare on a JetBlue flight last week. Shortly after takeoff from Long Beach, California, smoke began pouring into the cabin. The captain sounded calm as he announced that the plane was returning to land. He, reportedly, neither deployed the oxygen masks nor took effective action to clear the smoke or to provide fresh air to the passengers.

The captain’s first priority is getting the plane safely on the ground after an engine fails. While airliners are designed to fly fine on one engine, passengers are not designed to breath smoke.

The air going into the passenger cabin comes from the engines. It is easy to stop the smoke from coming in from the bad engine, and to supply fresh air from the good engine. But, when there is a lot going on in a cockpit, pilot performance sometimes does not rise to the occasion; instead, it can descend to the level of repeated training.

It is reasonable to expect pilots to do two things simultaneously, but that happens only if their training prepared them to do so. Airlines don’t always find it in their best interest to provide more training than Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require. Extra training costs money. In addition, history shows that there can be a conflict between protecting the passengers and protecting the airline from liability.

Here’s an example. Years ago, a Pan Am 707 cargo plane crashed just short of the runway in Boston. An improperly packaged shipment started a fire in the cargo area. Smoke flowed into the cockpit. There was no procedure in the pilots’ previous training for clearing the smoke. Unfortunately, the correct steps that needed to be taken—which would have cleared the smoke—were counter-intuitive. The steps the Pan Am pilots took, though seemingly logical, made the smoke worse. The smoke became so thick that just before reaching the runway, the pilots could not see well enough to land.

Pan Am studied the accident and developed a specific checklist for ridding a 707 of smoke. That checklist was complex because the plane’s air conditioning system needed to be adjusted depending on the source of the smoke. It included procedures for managing the plane’s electrical systems if the smoke appeared to be coming from an electrical device or electrical wiring. We pilots welcomed these brilliantly thought-out procedures. Our delight was short-lived. The checklist was withdrawn. Why? Because Pan Am’s attorneys objected.

They claimed that the checklist exposed Pan Am to potential lawsuits. The lawyers said Pan Am was better protected if—instead of providing the pilots a well thought-out procedure—it were left up to the pilots to just “wing it.” That way, the lawyers said, if an accident took place, it could be chalked up to “pilot error.” If there was a procedure, the airline could be held liable for any faults a jury might find in the procedure. Absurd logic, but this is what happened.

So, here we are again. Pilots are trained to get the plane back on the ground, and pilots are trained to provide fresh air. But, as we now see, they were apparently not prepared by training to do both at the same time. It may have been for legal reasons. It may have been to save money on training. But either way, it didn’t happen.

Emergency Landing Investigation

There is, of course, the good news that JetBlue Flight 1416 landed safely, and there were no serious injuries. JetBlue did not specifically respond to a request to comment on its pilot training. But the airline did release a general statement on the incident, claiming the cockpit crew on board Flight 1416 ”reported an issue with the number two engine and returned to Long Beach Airport where the airplane landed safely. Customers and crew evacuated the aircraft via slides. Four customers were examined by first responders. An area crewmember accompanied one customer who requested transport to an area hospital for observation.” The airline declined further comment, claiming there was a continuing investigation.

Indeed there is. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the emergency landing, and will look at all factors concerning the engine fire as well as the crew’s response. But this will take time. But even when the NTSB issues its report, should it find any fault in crew training, it can then only make recommendations to the FAA, which makes and enforces policy and safety rules.

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By Captain Tom Bunn for PeterGreenberg.com. Bunn is a former commercial airline pilot turned licensed therapist. Since founding SOAR, he has counseled over 7,000 people across the globe who have a fear of flying through his program. You can buy his first book SOAR: The Breakthorough Treatment For Fear of Flying on Amazon.

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