United 96, Declaring an emergency

Last night we got another reminder of how things don’t always go as planned when a plane begins a journey. A United Airlines 757 departing from Newark bound for Berlin, Germany blew a tire on departure. Debris from that tire flew into the engine and caused some problems. And, for the most part, it sounds like everything was just another day at the office for the pilots and ATC folks. Thanks to LiveATC.net I listened to the communications this morning and, while they certainly sound attentive and concerned, there is nothing resembling panic in the sequence. Just like you’d expect.

The conversation spans about 11 minutes (actually much longer while they’re circling, but this was the meat of if) and covers two different frequencies as they actually take off and then switch to the departures controller as they get off the ground. I edited down the feeds and combined the two into a single audio stream here.

I’ve transcribed the conversation, too. At least this is what I think they’re saying.

Tower: United 96, Contact New York Departure. So long, y’all.
Aircraft: United 96, Uh we blew a tire and <uninteligible> declare an emergency.
Tower: United 96, contact New York departures 119.2 vectors back to the airport.

Switch to 119.2

Aircraft: Departures, United 96, < unintelligible > Declaring an emergency
Tower: United 96, understand you are declaring emergency
Aircraft: We are
Tower: Alright, Climb and maintain 3000 turn left heading 340.
Aircraft: 3000/340, United 96
Tower: United 96 when you are uh able to give me the details let me know how many uh fuel and souls you have
AC: Right back, souls on board 173. 70K in pounds.
T: United 96 Okay, say that again, sir
AC: 69K pounds of fuel, 173 souls on board.
T: Alright, we have planes reserved flames observed off your left hand you can come to tower sir
T: United 96 say runway request. You blew a tire on 11.
AC: We have an engine failure United 96.
T: Alright, United 96, uh whatever we can do to help you sir we’re going to do it. Just let me know what your intentions are
AC: Alright standby. We’re going to continue this heading and figure it out. Looks like we’ve got two good engines. You said you thought we lost a tire on runway 11.
T: The tower reports you blew an engine on runway 11, affirmative.
AC: That’s what it felt like. Looks like we have two good engines. Standby.
T: Okay, sir.
T: United 96 if you are able to fly heading 260 please fly 260. I’m keeping you in safe airspace
AC: Okay 260, United 96.

About 90 second later

T: United 96, now heading of 200
AC: Heading 200, now United 96. And, uh, looks like we’re going to need runway 4L. I believe we lost a tire on the left side.
T:Alright, runway 4L it is. Let me know when you are ready to start inbound. Do you have a fuel uh… Are you too heavy to land right now sir?
AC: Ah, yeah, we are, yeah.
<background noise of co-pilot calculating max landing weight>
AC: Yeah, right now looking 40,000 fat.
T: Alright, United 96 do you want me to keep you spinning so you can burn off that fuel or you gonna start dumping?
AC: Well, we can’t dump on this airplane.
T: Very good.
T: Are you stable enough to burn this off in the air, sir?
AC: We are stable enough to fly it around. So we can just tool around out here. That’d be fine
T: Alright You have good indication on you know your left, your left nacelle, right? Everything’s working on both your engines?
AC: Yeah, everything looks good. What we did see was an over temp on that engine, with a chunking, banging and vibration off that left side.
T: OK, United 96, um, are you going to be able to climb to 4000 for me so I can keep you in some good airspace.
AC: Yeah, we can climb to 4000, United 96.
T: United 96, thank you. Climb and maintain 4000. Speed is your discretion. I’m going to keep you spinning so you can burn off that fuel.
AC: Ok, climbing to 4000 and that’d be great.
T: Alright, thanks a lot, sir.

Just another day at the office, as you’d expect from professional pilots.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. God bless their training, intelligence, psychological calm and professional merit. These are the men and women who truly need to be recognized more daily.

  2. What prevents a 757 from dumping fuel? And what happens if they have no choice but to land over weight?

    1. There is no mechanism on a 757 (or any other narrow-body aircraft that I’m aware of) to allow for dumping fuel.

      The plane could land immediately if they really had to. The plane wouldn’t fall apart but it is considered an “overweight” landing and they have to perform additional inspections and such which may delay putting the plane back into service. It isn’t worth the risk unless there is a true emergency. In this case they got past the emergency part pretty quickly and were stable enough to continue the flight until the landing wouldn’t stress the aircraft more than necessary.

  3. That’s probably a good question for the UA Pilot Q&A thread, but my semi-uneducated guess is that the 757 isn’t fitted with a fuel dumping system (some Airbuses aren’t, either, IIRC, as I recall a B6 A320 that had an issue with the nosegear at LAX once couldn’t dump fuel, either). And landing overweight is probably a possibility in an extreme emergency (engines out, etc.), but given that it has the potential to do damage to the wheels and gear structures, they probably don’t want to do it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Plus, they were already down one tire–not good to shove a plane against the earth when the things between the two are already compromised.

  4. Wow. I am always so impressed with the calm, cool and collected demeaner of the pilots and ATC. Listening to the transmissions gave me chills. Plus 1 to richard’s comment.

    I have an app on my iPad that I listen to EWR ATC. Wasn’t listening last night so missed this.

  5. Thanks for the answers…makes sense.

    Anyone know when these passengers actually got out for Berlin?

    1. The replacement aircraft landed in TXL at 1:39pm local time, five and a half hours late according to the United status information.

  6. Coincidently, last week I was on a BMI flight out of FRA to BHX that blew an engine on the runway. I was relieved to say that it happened while we were at 130 mph, just before take off and not after. We did block on of FRAs runways for an hour or so.

  7. This incident has some of the hallmarks of a compressor stall, otherwise known as a surge. Very scary for pax, especially those aft of the wing on the affected side, as they likely saw flames trailing the engine to go along with the violent bang and heavy vibrations that usually accompany this phenomenon. In many cases the engine will correct itself and resume operating normally, as seems to have happened here. Regardless, it is always prudent to get the airplane on the ground as soon as possible to inspect the engine as well as evaluate the other damage that occurred. A major engine issue early in an ETOPS flight will always result in a return or diversion.

    As for the fuel situation, aircraft such as 747s or 777s that can carry hundreds of thousands of pounds of Jet-A need to be equipped with a dump mechanism because max landing weight (MLW) can be as much 295,000 pounds lighter than max takeoff weight (MTOW) and the only way to slim down in flight is to burn/dump fuel.

    The 757 has a smaller margin between MTOW and MLW, so such capability, as demonstrated in this instance, is redundant. Rest assured that if the crew determined the situation were critical and that it was essential to land immediately, they would have been able to safely do so. Once it was clear that the aircraft was stable, any more aggressive measures (such as an overweight landing) would have probably caused more harm than good.

  8. Also worth noting is that this flight departed from rwy 11 at EWR, the shortest runway in operation there at 6800ft. The blown tire likely occurred after V1, which is the point at which the airplane can no longer safely stop on the runway. Any failure after V1 calls for a normal takeoff (to the extent possible), followed by troubleshooting the issue once established in flight.

  9. Great description of a non-event, well handled by professionals in the cockpit AND ATC/Tower. Yes, airlines include “Sounding Cool on the Radio 101” in their training programs .

  10. No tire failure, blow out or anything else. It was a compressor stall. The EGT on that engine went to over 1000 degrees C. On takeoff, EGT rarely exceeds 800C. Yes, we are trained professionals. Too bad UAL has such poor maintenance. This was not the only engine problem in the past couple of days. UAL 1095 also had a hot engine and returned to EWR. No emergency declared. Never saw any news about that one.

  11. @seth, you don’t see them much anymore, but the 707/720/727 and DC-8 (ATI combi flight, anyone?) are all narrowbodies that can dump fuel.

  12. Captain X, you have me worried now. I am only asking your opinion, not knowing who you fly for, do you consider UA safe to fly? It just seems that they have so many flts going MX and XL. Again, as I posted on FT, maybe we are just looking for it?

  13. @Cook, calling this a non-event is pretty cavalier.

    @Captain X, I only listened to the ATC recording, but the absence of a tire failure makes sense. I was having trouble figuring out how chunks of a left MLG tire would be ingested into the #1 engine on takeoff roll.

  14. Thanks Captain X you said what I was thinking: United is skimping on proper maintenance. The other emergency landing was smoke in the cockpit on a flight to Seattle both reported in Newsday and NBC. 2 emergency landings in 2 days.

    After a decade of flying Continental and now United I see where they are going with the airline: Ryanair/Easyjet. They don’t even offer special meals on transatlantic flights anymore (so for example no Kosher meal NYC to Amsterdam ). I decided this week to forgo my allegiance to them – this news just assures me it is the right decision. I’m not going to fly them anymore. Delta has seems to be the best US based legacy carrier and then fly more foreign carriers who still understand safety and customer satisfaction.

  15. @Nick Incorrect about special meals – they can still be requested for transatlantic flights.

  16. @ptahcha – Nope sadly you are misinformed – I called they are NOT offerred on this route. At least not Kosher meals…

    Call them and ask yourself – I called the Elite desk and the women said they were not available and then she told me: We have 10 hour flights to Hawai and we don’t even offer a hot meal. Like that is suppose to make me feel better? So over United…when you book transatlantic flights, depending on the route they actually say in the reservation: No Special meals on this route. It’s what got me to phone.

  17. @ptahcha – Apologies I called again – the message I got was a computer glitch and the Elite Customer service agent I got was a misinformed bitch. So yes you are correct they are still serving special meals on transatlantic flights. Thanks for motivating me to try again!

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