That one time when the engine burst into flames at 20,000 feet…
Suddenly, there was a tremendous bang. The twin-engine 777 jerked violently to the left. It was immediately clear that it wasn’t turbulence, though what had happened wasn’t clear either. As the plane listed to the left, sour smoke — that smell that comes from burning plastic — poured into the cabin. Every warning light that could flash, did. Then the dispassionate soundtrack kicked in, advocating that we “exit the plane immediately” without regard for the fact that we were 19,000 feet above the planet.
It was fall 2012, and Netflix was set to launch throughout Latin America. Having already launched in Canada, it was the company’s first foray into non-English speaking markets. Keep in mind, this was before Netflix Originals launched, so the tack we were taking at the time was to do research in different markets and launch one by one.
We had spent the better part of the past year traveling back and forth to cities like São Paulo, Mexico City, and Santiago to conduct pre-launch consumer research. By now, the trek to South America had become almost routine. Travel from San Francisco to Houston, Miami, or Washington, D.C., then get on another plane to the final destination.
The plan was to host media launch events in five different countries over the course of seven days. It was a way to show respect for the major markets and the consumers in those markets. Most companies might make their CEO available for remote interviews. We were going to hold press conferences and CEO interviews in-country.
The tight timeline meant that C-level execs had to travel by private jet. There was just no way to go in-depth with national and local media and leapfrog from São Paulo to Buenos Aires to Santiago to Bogotá and then to Mexico City in seven days via commercial air travel.
For those of us on the support team, a private jet would have been an absurd waste of money. But I also faced the dilemma of not being able to make all of the events. So instead I built a team that leapfrogged. I would be in São Paulo, then Buenos Aires, then Bogotá, and finally Mexico City. Our brand manager, Gary McMath, would go from São Paul straight to Mexico City. And my colleague Michael DeBiase would handle Santiago, Chile, then head to Mexico City. Since Gary and I had to both head to Brazil as our first stop, we booked the same flights.
Turbulence was always part of the package when flying to Brazil. Over the Caribbean and especially over the Amazon. Violent up/down/left/right. I got so used to it that I went from being completely white-knuckled any time a plane jostled to being almost blasé about it. I had no control in that situation, and I was cool with it (which admittedly was very odd for me).
The trip from SFO to Dulles was uneventful and comfortable. We landed in Dulles and went to the gate for our next flight. We boarded the plane, and I high-tailed it for the bathroom to change into my now well-established long-haul sleep uniform — comfortable socks, lightweight jogging pants, and lightweight long-sleeved jogging shirt. I got back to my seat and just sort of messed around reading until we took off.
Once airborne, I busted out my recently prescribed Ambien. For most of my life, I could never get any kind of sleep on any moving vehicle. Cars, boats, trains, or planes. Didn’t matter. If it was moving, I was not getting rest. So after two years of “toughing it out,” I finally caved and got a prescription. Of course, I tested it on land first. Kind of a “let’s see if any of those strange possible side effects happen” test. Didn’t get up, make and eat food. Didn’t have sex without knowing. So I was good to go on the plane use.
There I sat, Ambien in hand, ready to pop it as soon as a flight attendant came by with water. We were heading over the Chesapeake Bay at just over 19,000 feet when the plane made its aforementioned violent jerk and list. Later we’d be told that an oil-supply tube in the engine had burst, spraying oil all over the inside of the engine. That ignited, causing the explosion, fire, and subsequent shutting down of that engine. Since air gets drawn in from outside, the ensuing smoke from the fire filled the cabin. Of course, none of us knew any of that at the time.
It looked like a movie, except I was sitting in it. It was terrifying and numbing at the same time. All I could do was watch. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this reaction, as no one seemed to panic. At all. We just sort of looked at each other, somewhat in disbelief.
Meanwhile, the crew jumped into action. Well, maybe not jumped. I have no idea what the flight attendants were actually doing, but there was a lot of running back and forth down the aisles. At one point, when the smoke was at its thickest, a frantic flight attendant ran up to my seat, arm outstretched, offering me a wet paper towel. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why she was offering this. She gestured for me to put it over my nose and mouth. It turns out that she was offering me the best thing she could to filter out the smoke. Oxygen masks were out of the question. After all, until they knew what caused the explosion and that the fire was out, introducing oxygen to the mix probably wasn’t the best idea.
Within about 10 minutes, the alarms were off, the lights stopped flashing, and the smoke was mostly cleared out. The plane was still leaning to the left, and we seemed to have gone down in altitude quite a bit. The pilot came on and said exactly what I needed to hear.
I can’t remember the exact words the pilot used, but it was something like this: “Folks, well, what you felt back there was in fact a mechanical failure in one of our engines. The oil line ruptured, causing a fire and explosion in our left engine. The fire is out, and we’ve shut down that engine. The 777 is designed to fly with one engine, but we’re going to turn around and head back to Dulles. While this is not normal, it’s something we train for, folks. In fact, we get certified to handle operating and landing the plane with one engine every six months. So it may not be routine, but it is something we know how to do. We’ll come back on as we get closer to landing.”
Thus began the longest 40 minutes of my life as we limped back to Dulles at low altitude. All I could do was stare out the window and think a) no one down there has any idea what’s happening up here, b) no one I love has any idea what’s happening, and c) I don’t want to die tonight.
I was raised as a part-time Methodist; I’m an atheist now, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t re-visit that briefly up there. But I quickly came to the conclusion that circumstances don’t really change how I feel on the subject. So there I sat, repeating over and over, “I don’t want to die tonight.” That plus yoga breathing was really the only way to keep calm.
When we got close to Dulles, the pilot came on and said (again paraphrasing, as I didn’t write it down), “Ok, as we get ready to land, I wanted to let you know that we don’t think there’s a need for an emergency landing, but we still have most of our fuel, so we’ll be coming fast. Also, we’re going to have to rely on our brakes to do all the slowing, so when we come to a stop, we’re going to have to sit tight while the fire trucks make sure our brakes don’t catch fire from the friction.”
To be honest, I felt torn on the lack of an emergency landing. On one hand, it was somewhat comforting to know that things weren’t bad enough to require one. But on the other hand, I would miss the opportunity to go down the super happy fun slide. Yes, I am a 12-year-old sometimes.
Normally, when a plane lands, a combination of brakes and reverse thrust is used to bring the plane to a taxi speed. It was pointed out to me later that had our plane attempted to use the reverse thrust, it would have spun the plane around, almost certainly causing a fiery crash.
We landed hard and fast. By now the mantra I had been repeating switched from “I don’t want to die tonight” to “Come on, make it,” as if by cheering on the plane I was somehow affecting the outcome. We eventually stopped, and, as promised, we were quickly surrounded by fire trucks dousing the brakes and wheels.
After about half an hour, we deplaned into what can only be described as a people mover specifically designed for getting people off a plane while it was still on the runway. It looked like a drivable two-story shipping container. It was around midnight and thus hard to see the damaged engine as we pulled away.
We were taken to the airport, escorted to the United ticket counter, and given vouchers for taxis, nearby hotels, and some food in the terminal. Once at the hotel, the Ambien barely worked. We had to get up to catch the “continuation” of our flight (as United was calling it) in about five hours. So after four hours of worthless, tossed, Ambien-induced sleep, I got up, met Gary in the lobby and we headed back to the airport.
Naturally, when sleep-deprived, one makes poor diet decisions. Layer on a seemingly life-threatening event, and no rational decision stands a chance. So it only seemed right to start that morning off with fish and chips washed down with a double Bloody Mary. To be honest, it did calm the nerves.
After breakfast, we made our way to the gate, took our seats on the “continuation” flight, and waited for takeoff. Suddenly, all the electronics shut down. Then came back on. Then shut off and turned on again. After a little pause, they went down again.
The pilot came on the address system and told us that a light wasn’t working properly. He assured us that it wasn’t a big deal and would be fixed in about 30 minutes.
On any other day, these events would have been a little concerning, but given the incident just a few hours ago, it felt a little more stressful to me. Turns out I wasn’t alone.
Immediately after the pilot told us what was going on, a flight attendant got on and started to say something rehearsed about how they were experiencing trouble with the electrical system. But she didn’t get to finish. Halfway through her speech she was suddenly interrupted. “No, wait stop…you can’t” and, with that, she was cut off.
Gary had a front-row view from his seat to what was happening. A throng of people rushed the exit, pounding on the door, trying to open it and demanding to be let off the plane. Usually a crew won’t open a closed door even if the plane is still at the gate (which we were). But given the context, the crew relented and opened it. By Gary’s estimation, a good two-thirds of the flight got off the plane.
Meanwhile, I was seated, thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me” when the flight attendant first came by and asked whether he could get me anything. “Scotch” was my response. My nerves were pretty well shot at this point, but I really only had three options: Get off the plane and take another one tomorrow, can the whole thing and get on a plane back home, or wait for them to fix whatever was wrong and get going. I tend to think pilots and crew aren’t exactly keen on dying either, so when a problem like this presents itself, I err on trusting them to fix it or no-go. As it turns out, it really was a light that was malfunctioning.
“Sorry, I can’t open the liquor on the ground,” was the response the second time the flight attendant asked whether he could get me anything. Keep in mind, this flight crew, while not the one from last night’s flight of terror, was well aware what the people on this plane had gone through.
As the flight attendant approached a third time, he leaned down and said, “Meet me in the galley in about five minutes.” I asked if I could grab my friend who suffered through the same experience last night. “Yep.”
I went back and grabbed Gary without telling him what was going on and said to just follow me. We headed to the galley at the front of the plane. There, with no one around, sat two plastic glasses full of ice and scotch. The attendant came through. Suddenly worries started melting, and we started joking around and returned to our seats. Part replaced, we departed for São Paulo.
Thankfully, that was the end of the mechanical plane chicanery. But the rest of the seven-day tour involved plenty more wackiness. Like Brazilian airline TAM, whose attendants sprayed some sort of insecticide in the cabin (in a oddly robotic fashion) just before landing. Or Qatar Airways, which was luxurious in a dated, “Members Only” kind of way. And the plane that Aerolíneas Argentinas flew felt like what I imagine Russian carrier Aeroflot would have flown in the ’70s (i.e. a bucket of bolts). Though all of it was odd, thankfully the flights were all uneventful.
Interestingly enough, I wasn’t affected by any of this until a couple of weeks later, after the tour was all done. All of a sudden, I started to panic and freak out one day at work. I had to leave that minute and was pretty useless for about four days. I’m no expert, so to be honest, I’m not sure how to classify that reaction. The good news is that it passed, and I was able to resume flying internationally for Netflix again soon thereafter and haven’t had any issues since. Believe it or not, I still love flying.
I wrote this a couple years ago and didn’t do anything with it. The recent Southwest Airlines engine explosion prompted me to finally publish it (even though that was a 737). And, yes, all of this actually happened.
Many thanks to friend and former colleague Betsy Bozdech McNab for the editing assist. And Christine Nagel for always being my second set of eyes.