When your plane’s engine catches fire

Better seen from a distance.
Better seen from a distance.
Image: Courtesy Jeannette Jakus
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My son and I were on a United Express passenger jet that caught fire and had to be evacuated yesterday afternoon on the runway at Denver airport. The plane’s left engine had caught fire around when we landed, with flames shooting out of it. The fire was large enough that the controllers in the airport control tower could see it and radioed the pilots to alert them, a pilot told passengers after everyone had evacuated.

One of the flight attendants announced shortly after landing that there was an emergency, that we should leave all of our things on the plane and exit by the front door. Everyone made it out of the plane safely.

Although it’s an unusual thing to happen, emergency evacuations are not as rare as you might think. The International Air Transport Association reported more than one a week (pdf, p112) last year. Having just experienced an emergency evacuation from a plane on fire, I have a few thoughts to pass along:

Flight crew are trained to remain calm and measured in communicating with passengers—but you should act with urgency. Experts say your survival in a plane accident often depends on how quickly you get off the plane. I’d estimate it took at least five minutes to evacuate the roughly 60 passengers from our plane. Things could have been sped up if everyone followed the instructions not to take anything with them. One of our fellow passengers noted that people all slowed down at the bottom of the stairs to the tarmac, turning around to look at the fire. In retrospect, I or someone else could have stood there to whisk them away from the plane and help speed the exit of those stuck behind.

– Social media leads people to do stupid things. A number of passengers lingered by the plane to take selfies with the burning engine in the background. They had no information that should have given them confidence that the plane wasn’t going to explode and shower them with fiery metal if they stuck around. Protip: forego selfies.

– It can pay to fly first class. The highest-ticketed passengers got off well in advance of the rest of us, since they were closest to the front exit. We all got off fine, so it didn’t matter in the end—but the first class passengers had the best chances in our burning plane. ( On the other hand, other studies have concluded that in the case of a plane crash, those can be the worst seats.)

Panic sets in. There was a brief yelling match during the evacuation as passengers behind us—who had seen the fire closeup out their windows—started panicking and yelling at the people in front of us to speed up. One passenger in front turned around and yelled back that they were going as fast as they could. Part of the disconnect seemed to be that the people in front of us in the plane didn’t realize it was on fire. Calm urgency is critical.

– Fire trucks can get to a runway in a hurry. The fire department showed up as we were emerging from the plane, and quickly doused the fire. One fireman said they were positioned around the airport to get to any runway within three minutes. That should be reassuring to everyone.

We boarded buses for the terminal. They eventually towed our plane—operated by SkyWest on behalf of United—to a hangar. A United Airlines employee said it was inspected by the US National Transportion Safety Board. Airport staff brought our luggage, including all the carry-ons we had left on the plane, to the terminal a few hours after we landed.

One overall takeaway is that things don’t play out as you imagine they might. Many passengers didn’t realize what exactly was going on until they were outside the plane. I’m usually numb to the safety instructions at the start of flights—but I always count the number of rows to the nearest exit from my seat, knowing that in dark or smoky conditions you might not be able to otherwise make your way out. But in this instance, the window emergency exits weren’t the best option for us given where the flames were. Sometimes you really have just one exit, and it’s the farthest from you.

The best thing is clearly to get out of the plane quickly, calmly, and get as far away from it as you can. And only then should you start tweeting about it.