Another Flight to Nowhere: UAL28 off Heathrow, 12/17/2014

A Boeing 767 (United Flight 28) was airborne for nearly five hours over the English Channel, while burning off and dumping fuel to return for a landing at London’s Heathrow airport. The airline is not explaining yet what the issue was, but the flight tracking data indicates the flight diverted to the south after departure, then leveled off first at ten thousand feet, then at twelve thousand feet. It appears to have flown nineteen loops, mostly using up fifteen minutes per loop, and to the southwest of the Isle of Wight.

The low altitudes would suggest their was an aircraft pressurization issue. A passenger reported to the media that the captain had advised they needed to get rid of 20,000 pounds of fuel before they could return to land.

20141217.. UAL28 4hr fuel burnoff after EGLL departure, map

Heathrow was in a west flow. The faint dashed blue line to the west-northwest approximates the intended route to United’s hub airport at Newark, NJ.

20141217.. UAL28 4hr fuel burnoff after EGLL departure, chart

The yellow line shows altitude (mostly at 12,000′), and the gray line shows airspeed. The cyclical patterns on the gray line reflect airspeed variations due to winds aloft.

The incident was well covered in an article at DailyMail.com. One comment stands out:

“Why can’t airlines actually tell passengers what is happening? Its not like they’ll rip the door open mid flight and start jumping out.”

A good point. It seems plausible that, for aviation mechanical events such as this, airline transparency would be the best course. The current practice of opacity only causes people to wonder, what is the airline trying to hide. And certainly, the 227 passengers on board have a right to know what happened, on the flight they paid for.