Why A British Airways 747 Once Flew From LA To The UK On 3 Engines

On 20 February 2005, a scheduled passenger plane took off from Los Angeles International Airport en route to London, UK. During takeoff, one of the plane’s four engines blew out and was immediately shut down. Despite this, the flight continued as normal and made it across the Atlantic Ocean on just three engines. We explore exactly why this flight was allowed to carry on.

British Airways 747 taking off from JFK
A British Airways 747-400 was involved in a headline-grabbing journey in 2005. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

British Airways Flight 268 – LAX to LHR

The journey in question was a scheduled flight from Los Angeles to London on 20 February 2005 with British Airways. A Boeing 747-400 with over 350 passengers onboard took off from LAX at 21:34, with an 11-hour journey over continental United States and the North Atlantic ahead.

The flight was expected to return to LAX but continued on its journey. Photo: Getty Images

The aircraft had only ascended to 300 feet before its engine number two was set on fire due to a compression surge. The pilot team shut off the engine instantly and contacted air traffic control. Given the severity of the engine trouble, air traffic control canceled the scheduled flight plan and expected the plane to turn around and make an emergency landing.

Why A British Airways 747 Once Flew From LA To The UK On 3 Engines
The plane (registration G-BNLG) flew over 10 hours with only three engines. Photo: Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons

However, the pilots decided to continue with their journey and “get as far as we can” after consulting with their dispatcher. Once the plane had reached the East Coast, it was given the all-clear to cross the Atlantic on its way to London. Believing the plane to be low on fuel, the pilots instead decided to land at Manchester Airport, which they did without incident.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

The plane avoided costly penalties

According to the Wall Street Journal, the aircraft would have been forced to dump over $30,000 worth of fuel to make an immediate landing at Los Angeles. Aircraft often have to dump fuel before emergency landings to reduce their weight for a safer landing.

British Airways Boeing 747
British Airways dodged expensive fines but drew a lot of criticism from experts. Photo: Getty Images

Additionally, new European Union regulations had come into force just a matter of days before the flight. Under these rules, British Airways would have been liable for up to $275,000 in compensation if the flight was more than five hours late.

The journey provoked much debate

Technically speaking, British Airways and its pilots fully complied with aviation regulations when choosing to keep the flight going. The 747 is certified to fly on just three engines, and there was no indication of any damage to the aircraft’s other engines. Safety experts and aviation regulators still questioned the decision to operate such a long flight with one engine out.

The FAA was against the decision and wanted to impose a fine of $25,000 on British Airways for operating an unairworthy aircraft. However, British Airways countered by claiming they were following the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations. The FAA eventually backed down but requested changes to British Airways’ procedures in return.

Why A British Airways 747 Once Flew From LA To The UK On 3 Engines
Regulators and experts felt the journey was too risky and should have been avoided. Photo: Eric Salard via Wikimedia Commons

The British Air Line Pilots’ Association challenged the new European Union regulations, questioning whether they forced airlines and pilots into making risky decisions to avoid costly fines. In the aftermath, British Airways did not make any changes to its procedures, and the FAA retracted its claim that the aircraft was unairworthy.

Do you think this was a fair decision by British Airways, or an unnecessary risk to save money? Let us know in the comments.