Can an Aircraft Fly With Only One Engine?

white airplane

While the sight of a flaming engine might send shivers down the spine of any passenger, the reality is that modern twin-engine aircraft are designed to handle engine failure and can fly with one engine and with remarkable safety.

Extensive pilot training and robust aircraft design ensure that even a single engine failure does not spell disaster. This article delves into the procedures, implications, and statistics surrounding engine failure in commercial aviation.

Maintaining Control: The Aviate, Navigate, Communicate Protocol

Pilots are well-versed in the “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” protocol, a fundamental principle ingrained in their training. This emphasizes prioritizing control of the aircraft (“Aviate”) before addressing any other task. Only after ensuring flight stability do they navigate the aircraft on the intended course and communicate the situation to air traffic control.

Responding to Engine Failure: From Memory Actions to Checklists

one engine
Photo by Rafael Cosquiere

The severity of an engine failure dictates the response. In the case of a fire, immediate action is crucial after establishing control. Specific “Memory Actions,” ingrained without relying on checklists, are executed to shut down the engine and deploy fire extinguishers.

For less critical failures, checklists guide diagnosis and potential restart attempts. Regardless of the situation, landing at the nearest suitable airport is mandatory.

Shutting Down a Damaged Engine: A Collaborative Effort

While procedures may vary slightly across aircraft models, the core principle of safely securing a damaged engine remains constant. This typically involves disengaging autopilot, reducing thrust to idle, shutting off fuel supply, and isolating the engine from electrical and hydraulic systems.

Furthermore, fire suppression procedures involve discharging fire bottles if necessary. Both crew members meticulously verify each step to avoid shutting down the wrong engine.

Modern Engine Design Prioritizes Safety

Modern engines are designed with robust containment features to minimize the risk of fire spreading beyond the engine housing. In extremely rare cases, a forced landing away from an airport might be necessary.

Causes of Engine Failure: A Spectrum of Possibilities

Engine failure can occur due to various reasons, including fire, severe damage from bird strikes or blade separation, fuel issues, internal malfunctions, and exceeding operational limitations.

Consequences of Engine Failure: A Closer Look

Losing an engine has several consequences:

  • Asymmetric Thrust: The aircraft yaws (turns) away from the working engine, requiring pilot correction to maintain control.
  • Altitude Loss: Descent to a maintainable altitude suitable for single-engine flight is necessary.
  • System Redundancy: Certain aircraft systems might be affected, impacting handling and performance.
  • Landing Performance: Different flap configurations might be required, potentially increasing landing distance and influencing airport selection.

Take-off: The Most Critical Phase

Take-off is the most critical phase for engine failure. Pilots rely on a pre-calculated speed called V1 to determine their course of action. If an engine fails before V1, a rejected take-off (RTO) is mandatory. However, if the failure occurs after V1, the take-off must continue, with the focus shifting to regaining control before addressing the issue at approximately 400ft altitude.

Four-Engine Aircraft: An Extra Layer of Safety

one engine
Photo by Raf Jabri

Four-engine aircraft possess an even greater tolerance for single engine failure, as demonstrated by a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 flight that successfully continued its transatlantic journey despite an engine failure. Even in the unlikely event of multiple engine failures, a four-engine aircraft can still fly at a lower altitude and weight.

Engine Failure: An Extremely Rare Occurrence

Thanks to significant advancements in engine technology and rigorous maintenance procedures, engine failures in commercial aviation are incredibly rare. Statistics suggest that less than one in a million flights experience such an event, with most pilots only encountering them in simulator training throughout their careers.

In conclusion, while the possibility of an engine failure might seem alarming, modern aviation is built upon a foundation of meticulous design, comprehensive pilot training, and robust safety protocols. These factors ensure that even in the unlikely event of such an occurrence, the chances of a safe outcome remain overwhelmingly high.


Featured image by Carlos Pernalete Tua


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