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British Airways Fire and NTSB Report on Gulfstream Plane Crash

In the world of aviation news, there are some weeks that pass by without much fanfare. Then you have a week like this one where there are multiple news headlines that catch your attention.

british_airways.pngOn Tuesday, one of the worst nightmares for an air traveler came true. A British Airways plane caught fire on the tarmac in Las Vegas at around 4:00 p.m. as the flight crew prepared to depart for a 10-hour flight to London, England.

Passengers aboard British Airways Flight 2276 were forced to quickly evacuate the Boeing 777 from emergency slides as flames were shooting out from underneath the wings. Those inside the terminal at McCarran International Airport could only watch in horror as people scrambled out of the plane and ran as quickly as their feet would take them away from the burning jet.

British Airways Flight 2276 Passenger: 'Scary Stuff' 

Jay Jennings, a passenger aboard British Airways Flight 2276, said he was sitting in his seat with the window shade pulled down when he heard a loud 'thud.' He remembers pulling up the shade and looking out the window only to see flames and a plume of thick, black smoke. According to Jennings, the Boeing 777 sat for what felt like another minute or so before the flight crew came on the intercom and told passengers to begin evacuating.

After one of the plane's emergency doors was opened, smoke poured into the passenger cabin. Jennings recalled one of the passengers repeatedly saying 'not safe, not safe' as flight attendants directed passengers to another exit.

According to CNN, there were 159 passengers and 13 crew members aboard the British Airways flight. Emergency responders indicated that 13 people had to be rushed to area hospitals to treat injuries suffered during the mad rush to evacuate the burning Boeing 777.

Firefighters Able to Put Out British Airways Fire in Minutes 

Witnesses to the British Airways fire were quick to praise those onboard Flight 2276, who were able to evacuate very quickly, and firefighters at McCarran, who were able to extinguish the fire less than five minutes after the call came in.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had no choice but to close one of the airport's four runways for a few hours after the British Airways fire. Flights coming into Las Vegas were delayed for over two hours, and the flow of departing flights was slowed significantly.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to investigate the British Airways fire in Las Vegas. In a preliminary report issued Friday, officials said the fire points to a rare "catastrophic failure." Aviation safety expert John Cox, formerly a pilot for US Airways, said the engine failure indicates that parts may have sliced through the engine casing. Indeed, NTSB officials said the armored shell around the left engine's high-pressure compressor was damaged, and investigators found several pieces of the compressor on the tarmac.

A full report on the British Airways fire will likely take a year to complete. The investigation is ongoing.

NTSB Issues Report on 2014 Gulfstream Plane Crash 

The NTSB was busy this week. In addition to sending investigators out to Las Vegas, the agency also issued a report on a Gulfstream plane crash in Bedford, Massachusetts last year that left seven people dead.

If you don't recall this tragedy, here's what happened:

On May 31, 2014, a Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation G-IV plane operated by Arizin Ventures, LLC crashed after it overran the runway at Laurence G. Hanscom Field during takeoff. The Gulfstream plane ended up rolling through the overrun zone, collided with approach lights and a localizer antenna, then passed through the airport's perimeter fence before finally coming to a stop in a ravine. Both pilots, a flight attendant, and four passengers were killed in the crash. The Gulfstream was destroyed by impact forces and a fire that erupted in the wake of the crash.

According to the NTSB investigation, the flight crew neglected to disengage the airplane's gust lock system during the engine start process. This locks the elevator, ailerons, and rudder while the airplane is parked to protect against wind gust loads. Furthermore, the investigation revealed that the pilots neglected to perform a flight control check before initiating takeoff. This would have alerted them of the locked flight controls.

Now, this is pretty scary:

A review of data from the airplane's quick access recorder showed that the pilots neglected to perform complete flight control checks before 98 percent of their previous 175 flights, which seems to indicate that their oversight was not an anomaly.

"The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder indicated that neither of the two flight crew members, who had flown together for about 12 years, had performed a basic flight control check that would have alerted them to the locked flight controls," says Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman aviation attorney Ilyas Akbari.

So these pilots habitually failed to perform this preflight check. It begs the question: is this something that other pilots are neglecting to perform as well?

Of course, there is an argument to be made that Gulfstream should be held to account for this accident as well. According to the NTSB report, the mechanical interlock between the gust lock handle and the throttle levers on the G-IV restricts movement of the throttle levers when the gust lock handle is switched to the ON position.

Gulfstream maintains that the interlock mechanism was intended to limit throttle lever movement to a throttle lever angle (TLA) of no greater than 6° during operation with the gust lock on. But according to the NTSB investigation, post-accident testing on nine G-IV planes currently in service found that, with the gust lock handle in the ON position, the forward throttle lever movement that could be achieved on the G-IV was 3 to 4 times greater than the intended TLA of 6°.

"Some of the blame goes to Gulfstream since the gust lock system was designed to limit operation of the throttles so that the pilots would be warned that the system was still engaged, says aviation attorney Tim Loranger. According to the NTSB, "...Gulfstream did not ensure that the gust lock system would sufficiently limit the throttle movement on the G-IV airplane, which allowed the pilots of the accident flight to accelerate the airplane to takeoff speed before they discovered that the flight controls were locked."

Loranger agrees with the NTSB's comments that the FAA is also on the hook for last year's Gulfstream crash in Bedford. "Apparently the FAA didn't require Gulfstream to conduct any engineering tests or analysis of the G-IV gust lock system to ensure that it met regulatory requirements."

The NTSB report on the crash also includes a number of safety recommendations to the FAA. You can see the full report here.

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