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The Travel Column 2003-6-12

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We are pleased to bring you The Travel Column, written for "The Trinidad Guardian"


Now donít tell me you have NEVER had this thought whilst you were 35,000 feet in the air! I think anyone who travels regularly must have had this thought at one time or another. Hey, this crosses my mind probably EVERY TIME Iím on an aircraft!

So what really would happen? According to our travel colleague, David Rowell (a.k.a. The Travel Insider), the news is good - it is exceedingly rare for a plane to lose power in all engines. The even better news - if a plane does lose engine power, while cruising at normal speed and altitude, itís probably going to land safely. With his permission, Iím going to let you in on the secrets of jet engines, and why youíre really much safer in the air, than you otherwise think you might be!


Modern jet engines are incredibly reliable. Add to their designed reliability, the high quality of regularly scheduled maintenance, and there will be very few times when an in-flight problem occurs. In addition, modern engines automatically monitor themselves, conducting computerized self-diagnostics and analyzing their actual performance while in flight. However, nothing is infallible. Occasionally the turbine blades might break. Another source of turbine fan damage comes from ingesting foreign materials - either something loose on the ground or (quite common) a bird. Or something might go wrong with the electrics, the fuel, the lubrication or even air supply. The fuel might contain impurities that damage the engine, or the plane might simply run out of fuel. Most problems that can occur typically affect only one engine. And any modern passenger plane with two or three engines can operate more or less normally on only one engine for an extended period of time (ie for some hours). A four-engined plane will work happily on two engines, and with one engine it becomes a sort of 'super long range glider'.


Very uncommon. This might happen, somewhere in the world, no more often than once every 5 to 10 years.


This sometimes happens, and chances are you'll probably never even know that it has occurred, but for sure the pilots on the flight deck are very aware of such a situation. If they can't restart the engine and assure themselves that the problem is resolved, they'll immediately divert the plane and land it at a nearby airport.


Don't panic. Statistically, itís extremely rare that this will actually happen, and even if it did, you would have a very good chance of surviving such a situation. If a plane loses all power, it does not then just fall out of the sky. Instead, it becomes a very big and rather clumsy glider, but it still will have an amazing controllability, although not quite as readily as with the engines. It can still maneuver left and right, and can also vary its rate of descent, but it can no longer ascend or stay flying at a particular altitude.

A plane can land without needing to use its engines. Gliders do it all the time, and there is no reason why a passenger jet cannot land without engine power as well. It is likely that the plane's cabin pressurization will also fail. This would be a gradual failure, and then the oxygen masks would drop down in front of you. Thereís ten to fifteen minutes of oxygen supply through this system, and by the time itís used up, the pilot will have smoothly glided the plane down to below 15,000 ft, at which point you'll no longer need the breathing masks.

If the plane loses all power while at cruise altitude, the first thing the pilot needs to do is to accept that he has irrevocably lost power and to switch his focus from trying to recover power to planning how and where to land. It can take a minute or two for this realization to dawn, but pilots are required, as policy, to immediately assume the worst - while still, of course, doing all they can to bring about the best possible outcome. He should then climb steeply to convert the extra forward speed into extra height. The higher the plane gets, the less air resistance and the more range it will have. The pilot will probably get another thousand or two feet of altitude before the plane slows down to its most efficient glide speed, which is somewhere between 200-225 mph.

So, there you are, in a plane at, say, 35,000 ft, with no power. Your plane can probably travel ten to twelve times as far in a forward direction as it has height to lose - so at 35,000 ft, the plane can go about 85 miles, maybe more. The plane will also have about 20 minutes of flying time before the altimeter reaches zero. Which then leads to a very big question - is there a place to land within 85 miles of where the power loss occurred? When you keep in mind that this gives the pilot not just 85 miles of straight ahead, but also nearly as much travel to each side, and perhaps 70 miles back the way he came, that gives him almost 20,000 square miles of territory in which to hope to find an airport!

Go to for more information on what happens if an airplaneís engine fails! Anyway, if all this offers little comfort to those who are truly afraid of flying, please refer to our website at for our previous article, "Discover the Possibilities Ė Overcome your Fear of Flying"!

Melanie Waddell, Director
June 12, 2003


Previous Travel Columns

bulletThe Travel Column 2003-5-1
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-4-3
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-3-13
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-2-27
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-2-13
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-1-30
bulletThe Travel Column 2003-1-16
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-11-28
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-11-14
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-10-31
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-10-17
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-10-3
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-9-19
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-9-5
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-8-22
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-8-8
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-7-25
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-7-11
bulletThe Travel Column 2002-6-27

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