Aviation History: Colorado Teen Captures Harrowing Images of United Airlines Engine Failure

Image Source: Hayden Smith

By: Emma Rasmussen, Correspondent 

Engine failures on commercial aircraft are few and far between, and uncontained engine failures are an even rarer occurrence. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), turbine engines have a failure rate of once every 375,000 flight hours. Naturally, one can imagine the shock of 231 passengers traveling from Denver to Honolulu on Feb. 20 when their United Airlines flight suffered an uncontained engine failure after takeoff. Panic-stricken passengers filmed the crippled engine bursting into flames and shaking violently as the aircraft returned to Denver International Airport. 

For Hayden Smith, a teenage Denver-area aviation photographer, it was just another day engaging in his favorite hobby: photographing aircraft. He watched the Honolulu-bound United Airlines Boeing 777 depart Denver International Airport, disappearing into the bluebird Coloradan sky without incident. Wanting to capture some departing F-16 fighter jets, he traveled to nearby Buckley Air Force Base for another photo-op. It was when Smith’s phone screen lit up with a notification from FlightRadar24, the staple aircraft tracking app used by aviation enthusiasts, that he learned United Airlines Flight 238 was returning to the airport. Instinctively, he pulled his camera out and aimed for the sky. 

The unmistakable silhouette of the Boeing 777 reappeared as it approached the airport, and as Smith zeroed in on the aircraft with his lens, it became more apparent that something was very wrong. In full view of the teenager’s watchful lens was an engine without its cowling, spewing flames and smoke behind it. In complete disbelief, he began clicking away, capturing this strange moment. Images of commercial airliners so clearly dealing with an emergency are incredibly rare. As luck would have it, he was in the right place at the right time. 

Fortunately, United Airlines Flight 238 was met with a fountain of thick fire suppression foam upon making a successful landing in Denver. Within the hour, reports and images of aircraft parts appearing in front yards and parks around north Denver surfaced. To everyone’s relief, no one on the ground or onboard the airliner was injured. Missing Happy Hour at Duke’s was now the biggest worry for the passengers. For the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), finding the cause of the incident became a priority. 

In the days following the incident, more images surfaced of the damaged airliner. Broken or missing fan blades further pointed to an uncontained engine failure, and a hole was discovered to have been torn into the airliner‘s cross-section as a result. These images pale in comparison to Smith’s amazing capture, however— they immediately went viral upon their release to social media. His images have been used by every major media station, and have been reposted hundreds of times over on social media. Within hours of his images reaching viral status, his Instagram page gained thousands of new followers. 

“To be honest, all the media attention I have received is quite overwhelming,” Smith told Horizons Newspaper. “Seeing my photos appear in local, national, and worldwide media is still hard for me to comprehend, especially as just a few weeks ago I was unheard of.” When asked if he thought the aircraft was in any immediate danger, he admitted to being quite worried, but logically knew the aircraft would be just fine. “When I looked at the previews of the photos I had taken on my camera screen, I realized the full extent of the damage. Being someone who knows a lot about planes, I was near-certain that the plane would be able to land safely,” he said. “I was still worried thinking about what might happen in the end, but later hearing that there were no injuries was a massive sigh of relief.”

Smith’s claim to fame didn’t end there, however. Within hours of his photos reaching every corner of the internet, MSNBC and the local “Next on 9News with Kyle Clark” requested televised interviews. “I’ve never even seen anything close to what I just saw,” Smith told MSNBC’s Lindsey Reiser and Kendis Gibson the next morning. “So that was definitely a first for me,” he added. A few days later, he told local NBC affiliate anchor Kyle Clark that the situation initially seemed fairly normal. “I saw a little bit of smoke trailing off. The 777 is a pretty smoky plane in general, so I didn’t think a whole lot about it.” 

Indeed, the situation was not normal, and the NTSB preliminarily determined that the fan blades on the affected aircraft had suffered from metal fatigue. The FAA issued an airworthiness directive “requiring the immediate or stepped-up inspections” of Boeing 777 aircraft using Pratt and Whitney PW4000 engines. Japan Airlines, United Airlines, and All Nippon Airways grounded their PW4000-equipped 777s immediately. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) banned all affected 777s from entering their airspace. 

Ultimately, only time will tell regarding a complete investigation from the NTSB. Until then, an industry crippled by a yearlong pandemic remains wary of further negative publicity. Smith says he hopes his famous images will help the NTSB with their investigation, and also commends the professionalism at United Airlines during and following the incident.