I have had an interest in aviation dating back to the early 1970s when as a young student at Claremont Men’s College I wrote my senior thesis on the politics of the General Dynamics F-111, designed as a multi-service/multi-role combat aircraft in similar fashion to today’s Lockheed Martin F-35. From there, I spent two summers on Capital Hill working for Congressman Bob Wilson, a long-time family friend and the Senior Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, on other military systems then under development including the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy (at the time the largest military cargo plane ever built and still in use today by the US Air Force) and the MBT-70 which eventually was produced and named for General Creighton Abrams (The M1A1 and later the M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank-to this day 50 years later the most lethal main battle tank ever built).
More recently, I have been a fan and financial supporter of Juan Browne, a Boeing 777 pilot and host of the Blancolirio Channel on YouTube. Juan does the best analysis of general and civil aviation incidents of anyone I have ever seen and in clear language that is not only helpful to real pilots but also non-pilots like myself who have an abiding interest in failure analysis. In looking through his library of previous episodes, I came across a spellbinding interview that Juan did with Capt. Chris Behnam, himself a Boeing 777 pilot for United Airlines.
Capt. Behnam was born in Iran and graduated from high school in England. In 1980, he moved to the United States and began taking aviation classes. At the time of this event, he had flown with United Airlines over 30 years and served as a flight instructor for other United pilots on Boeing 777s in recognition of his vast experience.
In the 1990s, United purchased approximately 24 twin engine Boeing 777-200s and selected the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines for their planes from among several choices by different engine manufacturers. Each engine is huge: the diameter of the engine is about the same as the diameter of the fuselage of the Boeing 737.
In 2018, on a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii in a 777-200, Capt. Behnam and his crew had to deal with the disintegration of one of their PW 4000 engines approximately 30 minutes from Honolulu over the Pacific Ocean. The plane initially tilted almost to a 45 degree angle due to the “asymmetrical” trust created by an engine out situation and came close to falling out of the sky in what is called a high speed stall. Not only did Capt. Behnam keep the aircraft from either stalling or flipping upside down, he managed under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to regain level flight while fighting the control yoke with every ounce of his body for almost 30 minutes and then made a picture perfect landing.
The PW 4000 engine disintegrated due to a casting flaw in one of its many fan blades that also tore off the nacelle covering the engine and made the plane very difficult to control because of the vibrations created. At the time, the FAA and the NTSB assumed that this was a one-off occurrence. Regrettably, three years later in February 2021 another United 777-200 flying out of Denver with the same PW 4000 engines experienced the same catastrophic engine failure that also tore off the protective nacelle but was just a few minutes into the flight and was able to quickly return to the airport. United then immediately grounded all 24 777-200s with the PW 4000 engines until the problem was addressed by further inspections that also eventually lead to a prolonged grounding and replacement of the fan blades in all 24 aircraft.
As I have said in paying tribute to others, Roger Boisjoly last month and previously to Kendrick Castillo, Roddy Edmonds and Rick Rescorla, heroes are often measured by how they handled a crisis that unfolded in seconds, minutes or perhaps a single day in their lives, so-called “defining moments” irrespective of whether they also led exemplary lives for decades before and/or afterwards. United and the 381 people on board his plane that day were indeed blessed to have a man with such extraordinary flying skills and cool headedness as Capt. Behnam in what could easily have been one of the worst air disasters in the last 50 years. Airline safety is so remarkable since the advent of jetliners and automated flight controls and redundant systems that we tend to take safe flying for granted. Capt. Behnam proved beyond question that flight safety does indeed often depend on the skill of the pilots when presented with exceptional situations.