How I learned to stop worrying and love ETOPS

An aircraft engine has to be shut down over the middle of the Sahara desert. Will the team be able to deliver a safe result and a happy ending?

By Sean Mendis


It is never pleasant to be woken up by that sound. It is especially unpleasant when you are 35000 feet over the Sahara and the sound happened to originate from #2 engine.

But lets rewind a bit to the beginning of the story.

It had been an uneventful week. I was grabbing a ride on the redeye up to London for a quick meeting in the morning followed by a return on the lunchtime departure. As is my custom, I request the jumpseat in advance and then grab whatever seat is available in the cabin. Saves us the airport taxes and saves space in the passport by clearing formalities on the General Declaration instead.

Chris is our captain tonight and he was flying his first trip on this route. GS, the lead engineer, introduces us when I came on board and we chatted for a few minutes as the ground crew finished up the loading. We had a relatively light passenger load today with only 106 on board the 184 seater, but the 5.7 tonnes of perishable cargo and 33 tonnes of fuel ensured that we would be departing with just a minimal underload from MTOW for the nearly-7 hour flight.

As the doors closed, I looked at the final manifest and saw that 2 passengers had been offloaded at the gate by security due to questionable documentation, bringing the final number down to 104. The seatmap showed that my favourite seat 1F was still open, so I told MM, the purser, that I'd take that seat if it was ok with her. She flashed me the same charming smile that had taken her all the way to the Miss World finals twelve years ago and told me to make myself at home.

MM is due for a check flight on her return leg, so we have a second purser, KM, on board tonight. The Flight Attendant in Business Class is MRE and she comes around to take my order as we taxi out. Since I'm technically a deadheading crewmember on this aircraft, I have to stay away from my usual Jack Daniels and just ask for a Diet Coke with ice and lemon.

We are airborne from runway 21 at 2355hrs with a flying time of 6:17 to Gatwick. As we cross 10,000 feet, the seatbelt sign pings off and I wander up to the forward galley to ask the girls if I can do anything to help. It is a light load so they thank me for the offer and promise to let me know if they need anything later. The cabin interphone pings and MM answers. I start to head back to my seat but she taps me on the shoulder and signals me to wait. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. We go up to the cockpit and Chris explains that #1 engine is running a little hot. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem as we are still below the warning levels and things invariably cool down once we level out at 35000 feet, but Chris wants to go back to have it looked at. I do some quick calculations on the back of a napkin and figure we need to burn around 9 tons of fuel to get our landing weight down to an acceptable level. Chris concurs. That means around 45 minutes of circling with the gear down before we can land.

I turn on my mobile and send a quick text to GS regarding the situation. He's already at home, but he calls me back immediately and starts troubleshooting with Chris as the copilot informs ATC of our intention to return. Meanwhile MM has gone back to brief the crew. Chris finishes up on the line with GS and tells me that the plan will be to get on the deck as soon as our landing weight is within limits, conduct a test flight sans passengers to check performance at 30000 feet and if everything is clear, load back up and proceed to Gatwick. Duty time limits give the crew until 0442hrs to depart, so we have a few hours to work with.

We circle and land uneventfully at 0110hrs. Uneventful is a relative term though since we are still very heavy and Chris has to use full reverse thrust to avoid overheating the brakes. The fire trucks are with us in seconds and give us an all clear as we exit the active runway and proceed to ramp. We get the passengers and cabin crew quickly off into the terminal and GS and EG, the engineers, join myself and the two pilots for the VFR test flight after conducting a heavy landing check and signing off on the aircraft.

Flying on an empty aircraft seems simple enough, but there are protocols that need to be followed nonetheless. Security checks the cabin for any forgotten items of hand luggage while I quickly check all the galleys and stowage areas to ensure everything is properly stowed. Since there are only 5 of us on board and we are all on jumpseats in the front of the aircraft, we only need to arm doors 1. EG and myself arm and cross check the doors as we taxi out.

The test flight itself is quite anticlimatic. We observe a similar trend that arrests itself prior to reaching the "yellow zone" but then settles down to normal as we level out at 30000 feet. GS and Chris put the aircraft through some other maneuvers but after about 20 minutes they seem to be satisfied that all is in order. We come in to land without any drama and taxi to the ramp at 0330hrs where everyone is ready and waiting for a quick turn.

Crew, fuel, loadsheet, flight plan, passengers - we check the boxes off as we attempt round three for the night. All closed up and we are airborne at 0424hrs with 18 minutes of duty time to spare. The girls bustle around trying to get a very late dinner service done quickly, but most passengers had used their time back in the terminal to grab a snack there. I ask MRE for a croissant and muffin from the breakfast service instead and then recline 1F to try and grab a few hours sleep.