Fact Check

Fire Away

Does a photograph show an American Airlines airliner with an engine on fire?

Published Jan 19, 2005

Claim:   Photograph shows an American Airlines airliner with an engine on fire.

Status:   False.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

777 Engine Fire At Takeoff

This is an interesting photo of a very rare event in today's world.
The photographer was very lucky to catch this because the fire in the
engine inlet resides there for only about a 1/20th of a second for
each surge cycle. This is more than an engine fire as the title

This is typical of a low pressure compressor surge (backfire) where
there are 1 to 3 successive "cannon shots" of fire balls spaced about
3/4 a second apart. This means the engine is operating in excess of
160,000 Horsepower and 1/40th of a second later all the Mach .70+
airflow reverses direction from inside the engine. It projects a
fireball from the power generating core combustor of the engine out
the front of the engine (surge phase). That fire ball is driven back
into the engine (the point of this photo at about 1/3 of a second into
the event cycle) by the forward speed of the aircraft and the residual
inertia of the rotating fan. The airflow tries to re-establish normal
direction in the engine at this point due to the rotating inertia of
the engine rotors (recovery phase). Pratt & Rolls (this is a Rolls)
engines may recover and operate at a reduced power level at this


If the engine has been damaged too much (e.g. broken blades & parts
particularly light built GE engines), the airflow will not resume a
normal path and the engine disintegrates. If the engine is only
partially damaged, it will give you 1 or 2 more cannon shots 3/4
seconds apart before the engine completely disintegrates. Either path
the engine takes, that is the almost complete loss of a $12M engine
and a guaranteed sweeping job for the runway. The occupants seated
next to the failed engine will be temporarily deaf in one ear and all
the other cabin occupants will complain of ringing ears. The pilot
will think the controls have "whip sawed" him as the forces of the
airplane are redistributed and then he forces them back to where they
should be. Looking from behind or in front of the airplane, it will
appear to "swerve" to the airplane's left, dip the nose down and then
slowly lumber into the air at a shallow angle on the remaining engine.
With all of the messed up airflow paths, the ECS system will receive a
big slug of raw fuel, partially burnt fuel & parts from the bleed
system. The cabin will fill with a haze from the contaminated hot
bleed air.

Typical causes of this event are ingestion of a very large bird or
object, thrown fan blade, bad engine control commands from the
computer, a poorly maintained engine or an engine that has simply worn

Been there. Done that. Don't ever wanna do it again!

Click photograph to enlarge

Origins:   A blazing engine fire may be one of the most frightening sights one could experience on board an airliner, but the — despite the elaborate explanation accompanying the picture above — scariest thing about this photograph is what a poor job someone did of editing it. (One of the major tell-tale defects in this altered picture is that the flames from the putative engine fire aren't reflected in the shiny undersurface of the plane's fuselage, even though the engine's reflection is visible just below the red and white stripes under the "American" logo.)

If there were any doubts about the falsity of this photograph, the existence of the unaltered image put them to rest:

Click photograph to enlarge

Last updated:   6 October 2004


David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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