Jumpseat: Before Sully & Skiles

What happened for a 747 to lose three engines?

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The remains of the Kalitta Air 747
cockpit in Bogotá, Colombia.

En route from Miami to Medellin, Colombia, the cockpit satellite phone rang on board Kalitta Air's 747-200. Dispatch was calling with a request. A competitor's 747 freighter was experiencing mechanical problems in Bogotá. The competitor would be unable to transport a large load of flowers back to the United States. Would the crew divert into Bogotá to rescue the cargo?

Considering the fact that the original schedule was a 36-hour layover in Medellin, the change of plans was not unwelcome. Not that Medellin was necessarily undesirable, but the new itinerary would have the crew home two days earlier. And Capt. Bryant Beebe was fast approaching the FAA rule of 120 flight hours in 30 days.

Both Beebe and the dispatcher agreed that the extra fuel burn would not be an issue. The crew began the process of redirecting the airplane to its new destination.

Hours later, the redirection would forever change the lives of everybody on board the 747. On July 7, 2008, the professionalism of the crew and the raw pilot skills of the captain would be tested to the extreme. They would experience an event that no one believed possible. The event made Chesley Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles' landing on the Hudson River six months later look like it was a scheduled arrival.

With Beebe at the controls, the 747 soon touched down at El Dorado International in Bogotá. Beebe was well aware of the terrain challenges and the surrounding topography. The terrain was never an issue under normal circumstances. An engine failure, however, created the need for a different escape route rather than the standard departure. An engine failure was problematic even for a four-engine 747. These circumstances were the basis for one of Beebe's first important decisions of the event.

The trip had been double-crewed when it left Miami because of the original long flight time schedule. Two flight engineers, a copilot, one mechanic and two loadmasters were on board. Completing the roster of eight was a second captain. The second captain was junior in seniority to Beebe and had less experience. Although the second captain had indicated his desire to fly, Beebe would allow him only the opportunity to participate in and out of Bogotá from the right seat as a copilot. The command decision was received with the characteristic professional pout, but the reasoning was well-understood.

Many of the pilots who have the proud humility to call themselves "freight dogs," or "air cargus caninus," have colorful backgrounds. Beebe is no exception. His goal as a kid was to become an airline pilot and have enough money to buy his own airplane. He learned to fly in Maryland. He soloed after 10 hours of flight time. He obtained his commercial and instrument ratings while still attending high school.

While working as a flight attendant for Pan Am in 1978, Beebe flew canceled checks in a Cherokee Six, a Mooney 210 and a Baron. He was soon hired as a flight engineer on a DC-8 for a company that operated as a freight carrier and a scheduled casino airline. He spent four years as a first officer on a 727 for two different companies — one passenger airline and one freight airline. The now-defunct Midway Airlines employed Beebe for less than a year as a 737 copilot. He spent four years as a copilot on a 707. And then, in 1993, he was hired by Kalitta Air. He became a captain one year later. Beebe has been with Kalitta for 17 years and is seniority No. 12 on its list of approximately 230 pilots.

As ground personnel in Bogotá began preparations to load cargo, takeoff data was calculated and printed via the onboard computer and laptop programs.

Although a walk-around of the exterior had already been performed, Beebe's custom was to perform his own inspection. Part of his reasoning was that he used the opportunity to ensure a pushback and engine start could be accomplished without the risk of rolling a tire in the dirt or blowing equipment at unsuspecting ground personnel. In contrast to scheduled passenger flying, the world of night freight requires more in the way of self-preservation tactics.

After returning to the cockpit, Beebe completed a takeoff briefing that included a contingency to dump fuel immediately if an engine failed. At approximately 0335 local time, the 747 was pushed back. The takeoff roll began on Runway 31 Right shortly thereafter. Because of the heavy weight of 690,000 pounds and the surrounding terrain, maximum power was utilized.

As the airplane rotated, Beebe sensed a heavier than normal pressure required on the yoke. In a brief moment, he would know the reason. As the airspeed indicated V2+10, the No. 4 engine failed. Without hesitation, all three crew members shouted, "Dump!"

The junior captain acting as copilot immediately selected the engine-out escape route on the FMC (flight management computer). As Beebe began a turn to follow the FMC guidance, the stick shaker activated indicating an impending stall. He commanded, "Emergency thrust!" Why was this happening? Beebe soon had his answer. The No. 1 engine had now failed.

Strangely relieved that he did not have to compensate for asymmetric thrust, Beebe realized that following the escape route would not be possible on only two engines. He always had a Plan B. The Plan B was to attempt a landing at the Air Force base just to the north. Beebe turned the lumbering 747 back to the left away from the closest terrain. And then the nightmare went from bad to worse.

The No. 2 engine quit. Nobody on board had to verbalize that flying a 747 on one engine was unsustainable. Because of the approaching ridge line, the Air Force base was no longer an option. Plan C.

Beebe glanced toward El Dorado Airport. The PAPI lights on Runway 13 Right were visible. But the lights were all red. They were far below the three-degree glideslope. The airplane would never clear the terrain prior to the runway. Plan D.

Having familiarized himself with the area over the years, Beebe knew that a flat field existed just to the north of the airport. Using scattered streetlights and two opposing cell towers as runway edge markers, Beebe wrestled the airplane to line up for a controlled approach into the field.

With the gear up and the flaps still in the takeoff position of 10 degrees, the touchdown was surprisingly soft. And then all hell broke loose. Tremendous G-forces were experienced as the airplane slid across the ground, breaking itself into pieces behind the cockpit and the upper deck. Even though it wasn't quite true, the crew would joke later that Beebe had to be told to stop flying the airplane. Sliding across the field was both surreal and quiet. At no time during the entire event did Beebe consider the fact that they wouldn't survive, and at no time did he see his life flash before his eyes.

Once the remains of the cockpit came to a stop almost inverted on its side, nobody panicked. An unofficial roll call began. All eight crew members had survived. One of the loadmasters in the upper deck attempted a cell-phone call to Dispatch. Initially, the call was considered a prank. Unfortunately, it wasn't until 45 minutes later that Colombian emergency medical personnel reached the scene.

Beebe's seat was the only one that remained attached. In a moment of dark humor he found the crash ax after slithering toward the floor. He had shattered his L4 disc. After returning to the States, Beebe was told that he might never walk again unless additional surgery was performed. He still has serious pain as of this date, but he is using his cane less.

The other captain broke his nose sliding forward underneath the bottom of the instrument panel. His crotch strap was not fastened at the time of the crash. He suffered miscellaneous bumps and bruises but returned to work two months later.

The flight engineer sustained the worst injuries. He was in and out of consciousness at the crash site, losing a tremendous amount of blood. His spleen and part of his skull were removed. Various bones were broken, and he is now confined to a wheelchair. Because of his active role in manipulating switches, he had not restrained himself prior to impact nor was his seat facing directly forward.

The mechanic seated on the jumpseat in the cockpit received virtually the same injuries as Beebe did. Unstrapped from his shoulder harnesses, he fell to the floor with an audible snap. He is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.

The crew members in the upper deck received mostly minor injuries involving cuts and bruises. The extra copilot walked away with barely a scratch.

Two civilians on the ground were killed. Beebe's face contorts and his eyes water every time his thoughts turn to the Colombians who perished. Despite the tragedy, the neighboring town of Madrid sent Beebe the equivalent of a medal of valor in gratitude for avoiding the population.

What happened for a 747 to lose three engines? As of this writing, the Colombian government, with the assistance of the National Transportation Safety Board, is still investigating. Speculation of fuel contamination and mechanical failure is being considered. By certification, an engine at max power should last at least five minutes.

Regardless of the conclusion, no doubt exists as to the professionalism of all of the cockpit crew members involved. In an impossible situation, the abilities of the humble man in the left seat are unsurpassed. His contribution to the outcome remains unspoken. I am honored to know a man who ranks on the same level as Chesley Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles.

It is even more of an honor to know that my profession has many more.