Engine Out Over Europe
On the 23rd of August 2019, The Aviation Herald reported that a Smartwings Boeing 737-800 suffered an engine failure in flight.
The Boeing 737, registration OK-TVO, departed Samos, Greece at 06:27 UTC for scheduled passenger flight QS-1125 to Prague in the Czech Republic with 170 passengers on board.
About 15 minutes into the flight, flying over the Aegean Sea, they had just reached their cruise altitude of FL360 (36,000 feet) when the left-hand engine shut down spontaneously. At this point, they were about 100 nautical miles northeast of Athens, Greece.
The crew descended to FL240 (24,000 feet) and followed the checklists. They first attempted to restart the engine by windmilling: the airflow from the high airspeed rotates the compressor, in hopes that the compressor will reach a high enough rotational speed to ignite. When this failed, they attempted to restart the engine from the working right-hand engine, using a method known as cross bleed.
The left-hand engine did not restart.
The instructions in the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) for an in-flight shut down event is to plan to land at the nearest suitable airport. Of course, the term “suitable” leaves some room for manoeuvre. At this point, they were about 30 minutes from Athens.
The flight crew decided that there was sufficient fuel on board to continue the flight on one engine, so rather than divert, they carried on at FL240, overflying North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Hungary and Austria on route to their final destination of Prague, leading to a flight time of an additional two hours and twenty minutes.
The controller at Budapest ACC (Area Control Centre) who dealt with the flight as they overflew Hungary posted in the comments the same day, complaining that the flight crew mentioned a technical issue, which he presumed was an air conditioning fault. At no point did the flight declare a MAYDAY or PAN. He had no idea they were flying on one engine.
I work at Budapest ACC and I was in contact with this A/C when they overflew Hungary. Not a word did they mention about engine failure we were informed about a “technical issue”. That is in most cases an air con failure for the 737 to fly at 240 or 250. So they came in at FL240 as they reached the Austrian border we sent them to Vienna Approach.
10 minutes later they called us back to inquire us why we haven’t told them about the engine failure. It turned out that the failure was announced over Prague, Vienna then called us back but we didn’t know either. Serbians were also unaware and I also asked my colleague who was working at KFOR (Kosovo) airspace – it is also operated from Budapest – but he didn’t know either.
Czech media confirmed that air traffic controllers in the other regions were also not informed, with the exception of Czech controllers at the final stage of the flight.
There was some discussion on PPRuNe on whether the controllers had a right to be upset that they were not notified.
FAA regulations CFR 121.565 are clear that this is a requirement:
The pilot-in-command must report each engine shutdown in flight to the appropriate communication facility as soon as practicable and must keep that facility fully informed of the progress of the flight.
However, the EASA regulations do not seem to have the same requirement, stating only that any flameout, shutdown or malfunction of any engine must be reported but it is not clear, as it is in FAA regulations, whether the flight crew must report the occurrence.
They began their descent at 08:49 and the Boeing 737-800 landed safely at Prague. Maintenance staff were able to diagnose the problem as a faulty unit closing the engine valve, so no fuel was being supplied to the engine. The aircraft was repaired and tested and returned into service about seventeen hours after landing. There is no record of the fuel they had available upon landing, although the fuel burn at the lower altitude would have been higher than estimated for the flight, there’s no evidence that they landed on low fuel.
The CVR was not removed, thus the discussion in the cockpit during the flight was overwritten.
Smartwings Airline confirmed the incident the following day, saying:
The crew proceeded in accordance with the safety and operational procedures for these cases and the aircraft landed safely. The commander is one of the most experienced in the company, the crew was in control of the situation and certainly would not underestimate anything.
The commander referred to here was the captain of the flight and also the Director of Flight Operations at Smartwings.
On the 26th of August, three days after the incident, the Civial Aviation Authority of the Czech Republic stated that they were investigating the situation. According to the translation on Aviation 24:
We have decided to launch an investigation as the procedure followed doesn’t seem standard.
Smartwings responded win an internal memo confirming that gross violations of the company policy were being investigated and reminding staff that they were not to comment on social media networks and were not to publish internal information on the internet. The gross violations in question were the leaks to the Czech press.
Czech news site ZDopravy followed up with the CAA (English via Google Translate):
The Czech Civil Aviation Authority stated in a statement that “… there was no landing at the nearest suitable airport as it is in the interest of the safety of the crew and passengers on board. “ The Director of the CAA David Jágr said on Czech Television that they were shocked by the pilots’ progress and consider the case unprecedented.
On the 13th of September, Smartwings confirmed that the captain of the flight was no longer holding the position of Director of Flight Operations, although he continued to fly for the airline. Their internal investigation, they said, had identified pilot error as the cause of the incident.
This followed a leak that their own internal documentation showed that the pilot had not followed Smartwings procedure to land as soon as possible rather than continue to the destination and that the aircraft had departed Samos with “minimal” fuel. In addition, the fact that what was at the very least a dubious decision was made by the chief pilot of the company did not reflect well on Smartwings’ safety culture.
Meanwhile, the company memo does not seem to have achieved its goal. Last week, Aviation Herald reported that they had information that during the cruise on one engine, Smartwings ops contacted a Budapest-based maintenance provider to ask if they had the spare parts on hand to deal with a blocked fuel supply. Presumably the answer was no, as the decision was made not to land at Budapest but instead to continue.
The CAA has confirmed that they knew nothing about the incident until the Aviation Herald contacted them asking for comment. They have not released any further details and it is unclear whether they are planning proceedings against the crew, the carrier or both.