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The two pilots flying United Flight 328, forced to land in Denver on Saturday due to an engine fire, had a combined 60 years of experience and nearly 40,000 hours of flight time, their union said.
“We had a very good result yesterday,” Todd Insler, chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in an interview. “Safety is not an accident. We achieved that because of the experience of two well-trained pilots at the controls.”
Insler said the captain, who was flying the Boeing 777 at the time of the engine fire, was hired at United in 1990 and had 20,000 hours as a captain. The first officer was hired in 1999 by United, with prior commercial flying experience, and had 11,000 hours in the 777. The pilots are based in San Francisco.
“Both have been flying throughout the pandemic, as most United pilots have been doing,” he said. Because of a unique agreement reached between United and ALPA, both have remained current throughout the pandemic downturn in flying, he said.
The Boeing 777-200 departed Denver bound for Honolulu. The engine fire resulted in debris falling to land in the vicinity of the aircraft’s flight path. The pilots turned the aircraft around and landed safety in Denver with no injuries.
Insler has been among the foremost voices raised in opposition to continuing suggestions, generally from the air cargo industry, that commercial aircraft can be flown with just one pilot. He reiterated that opposition on Sunday.
“When the manufacturer built this aircraft, it required a captain and first officer minimum,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to take them out of the mix. In certain situations, it requires two experienced pilots to fly the airplane. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation without two pilots at the controls.”
Working together, the two pilots not only flew the aircraft, but also declared an emergency and communicated with both air traffic control and the flight attendants on board the aircraft.
“There are certain tasks we do that cannot be replicated by an auto-pilot,” Insler added. “There’s a human element, an experienced human element, that simply cannot be replicated.”
In a statement issued Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration said “A Boeing 777-200 returned to Denver International Airport and landed safely Saturday morning after experiencing a right-engine failure shortly after takeoff.
“The FAA is aware of reports of debris in the vicinity of the aircraft’s flight path,” the agency said. “The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate. “