Atlanta, We Have a Problem!

Flying with one engine on Delta Flight #131

By William Ewald
Photos by Tom Sullivan

What do you do when an engine fails over the Atlantic Ocean?

What can you do? What can the pilot do?

As regular international travelers know, the number of engines on the newer jet lines (Boeing 767s and 777s) has gone from a comforting four to a more disquieting two.

I had never thought about this situation or that it could occur on a flight I was on, but our group was about to find out.

The scene: a packed Delta Airlines flight from Munich to Atlanta. About three hours out of Munich, the overhead television monitor of our progress over the Atlantic showed we were passing just south of Iceland. There was only mild interest on my part.

An hour later, the calm and reassuring voice of the captain interrupted our flight movie to tell us that the right engine of our 767 has ceased to function, and that we would be flying to Keflavik Airport in Iceland as a safety precaution.

Admittedly, I was dozing when the announcement was made, but most people later indicated they hadn’t noticed anything when the engine went out. The captain added that these well-made Boeing planes were easily able to fly on one engine, and–thankfully–he was right.


My wife, Carol, and I were accompanying a group of 17 high school German students on their way home to Chicago via Atlanta after three weeks participating in a stimulating German exchange with their sister school in Hamburg, Germany. The kids were elated at the thought of spending the last hours of their trip in a country they had never hoped to visit.

“Parents can wait,” they thought. “We’re going to Iceland!” We chaperones thought, “If one engine can go out, what happens if the other one stops as silently and without warning like the first?” We hurriedly checked our life jackets and raft launching procedures on the flight safety card.

The rest of the trip was both a bit surreal and entertaining. Landing with only one engine was just a little different than other landings, as the pilot had to be careful using only one engine to assist with braking. We did notice the emergency fire equipment at the end of the runway when we landed, which the captain had assured us would be there as part of “normal procedure.”

We were told shortly before debarking, that a replacement plane would be flown from New York to pick us up, and that we should check the airport departure monitors to determine when to board the replacement plane.


Thoughtfully, the airline had already made arrangements for all 280 passengers to take a three-hour tour of interesting sites surrounding the airport. Within an hour of landing they had found five luxury buses for our tour, even though Delta had no airline representative anywhere close to Iceland. We wished the drivers of the buses had given us more information about the sites we were seeing, but we sensed they had been hired to drive our group and not guide us, and that their English language skills were limited. We can understand that it would have been even harder for local officials to find five buses, drivers and guides for us on an emergency basis at 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon in a remote area of Iceland.

So on our own we enjoyed “The Blue Lagoon,” a smelly sulfur springs, a quiet fishing village, a bridge spanning a major Atlantic fault, and some hill climbing through the volcanic rocks which dominate this desolate part of Iceland. At each site, the kids hopped off the bus with great enthusiasm, cameras in tow.

After our sunny late afternoon tour, we returned to Keflavik Airport, were given supper in the single airport cafeteria, and, because by then flight monitors showed we wouldn’t be taking off on the reserve plane until 6:00 a.m., everyone started looking for a place to sack out for a few hours. No one objected when our students started pushing black leatherette chairs together to create a manger-like individual sleeping environment.


There are no flights from Keflavik Airport after midnight, but the thoughtful personnel in the airport cafeteria and duty-free shop stayed open to meet the appetites and shopping needs of 280 unexpected visitors. Passengers had an entire airport to themselves, and the airport personnel couldn’t have been nicer or more tolerant.

In a continuing giddy mood, three of the girls in our group used some of the free cosmetics available in the duty-free shop to make up the faces of two willing boys, finally escorting them around for a little “makeup show.” Others purchased black T-shirts with the ironic inscription “Lost in Iceland.”

Fifteen hours after landing in Iceland, we took off in the morning dawn with the same flight crew we had out of Munich. Twelve hours later, weary students running on their last adrenaline, greeted their relieved parents at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The trip was finally over.

Before leaving, the amiable kids we had just spent three weeks and a day with, were cautioned not to forget they had just spent three glorious weeks in Germany, and not to talk exclusively about Iceland when asked about their exchange trip.

Despite our warnings, we don’t doubt that many of them told friends that “Germany was great, but we had to make an emergency landing in Iceland!” One of the students started to write out plans for an exchange trip to Iceland, with volcanic rocks as “host parents.” Funny kids.

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