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.

 

ANALYSIS: A 4-Hour Fuel Burn-off Following a BizJet Hydraulic Failure

A Hawker business jet departed the Centennial Airport [KAPA] at 11:03AM local time, carrying a passenger on a flight to Latrobe, PA [KLBE]. Had everything been normal, it would have landed less than three hours later. On this flight, though, a mechanical failure forced the flight to return for a landing.20141009.. HS25 KAPA-KLBE at FL390, route screencap, with states

It was believed that a tire ruptured during the takeoff, and caused damage to the hydraulic system. So, the flight crew got approval from ATC to fly delay patterns with the sole purpose being to burn off all extra fuel prior to a gear-up landing.

In the diagram below (a ‘classic view’ covering northeast Colorado, from Flightaware), the flight takes off to the south at KAPA (bottom left corner area) and eventually lands to the north at [KDEN]. Annotations have been added to help illustrate the route flown; a few locations give geographic reference, and local times (orange) help to show the sequence of loops. Essentially, the flight had taken off to the south and then climbed to 23,000-ft. It had a speed well over 400-knots when it was turned around near Yuma, CO. The flight then proceeded back to Centennial, and set up for a possible landing. Instead of landing, the flight flew southbound over the airport, then turned east and began a series of random loops, probably while a final plan was being worked out. More than an hour later, the flight was routed north, where the flight crew made seven large circuits to the north of Greeley. Then, at approximately 3:00PM, the flight turned inbound for a landing at Denver International Airport.20141016.. KDEN HS25 fuel burn to land after tire damage ion KAPA takeoff, times addedThe landing was successful. A foamed Runway 34L received the no-gear aircraft, creating a shower of sparks while the Hawker decelerated. A small fire under the fuselage was quickly extinguished. Here is a video from Denver’s Fox 31: