You might not have heard his name, but Christopher Behnam prevented what could have been one of the worst aviation disasters in US history.
He was the captain of the United Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing in Honolulu last year after the engine cover came off in midair.
There were 381 people inside that plane and some of the passengers said they really thought they were going to die. Now we hear from Captain Behnam, and his side of the story is just as chilling.
United flight 1175 from San Francisco was about 200 miles from Honolulu when the cover from the right engine came off. Soon after, passengers took video of themselves saying goodbye to their families.
“All of a sudden it felt like we hit a brick wall at 500 miles an hour, the right engine exploded,” said Behnam.
He says the automatic pilot and throttle were immediately disconnected, and the plane started rolling.
“I do acrobatic flying so I knew what needs to be done. You can’t have the airplane roll on its back. It could have been the end of it,” he said.
He had to work with his co-pilot, First Officer Paul Ayers, but that was a challenge on its own.
“The explosion was so loud, the airplane was shaking so bad that we could hardly see the engine instruments. We had to shout on top of our lungs in order to communicate with each other,” said Behnam.
They were able to turn off the right engine, which helped, but the plane was still shaking.
“Imagine a semi-truck going at 200 miles an hour over railroad tracks with no shock absorbers,” Behnam said.
So for the next 40 minutes, Behnam had to focus all his energy in landing the plane, preferably on the runway. He points out that 777 jets are not designed to land in the water.
“You hit the water at 200 miles an hour there’s gonna be a very bad outcome,” he said.
But losing one engine wasn’t the only challenge. There was the lack of visibility.
“As we started descending from 36,000 feet, we entered the clouds at 33,000 feet all the way to 2,500 feet. So I had no visual reference to Honolulu, where the airport is,” said Behnam.
He had to rely on his instruments, but some were not working. So he and his co-pilot had to do their own calculations.
“In my head I was doing altitude, airspeed, distance to the runway, altitude, airspeed, distance. So I was calculating my rate of descent so I will end up in Honolulu right on the dot,” said Behnam.
He adds, thankfully, there was a third pilot in the cockpit, First Officer Ed Gagarin, a Hawaii resident who wanted to get on the flight but the cabin was full. So he sat in the jumpseat. Behnam said having that extra pilot was critical so he can focus on just flying the plane.
Behnam had to figure out just the right airspeed because if he went too fast it felt like the plane was gonna fall apart. Too slow and the plane would stall and plunge.
“It literally felt like if I put a plate on my hand with a ball bearing in the middle. I had to keep that airplane balanced for 40 minutes,” said Behnam.
He admits there were moments in those 40 minutes when he thought they were not gonna make it.
“I made one decision that morning that today is not the day for us to die. I had not said goodbyes to my family, kids,” he said.
And of course there were some 370 passengers plus crew members.
“Oh my God, there is a town back there. I’m carrying a small town. I had to make it,” said Behnam.
When they landed safely, with no one injured, the pilots stood by the door to thank the passengers as they got off the plane. The passengers were appreciative too.
Behnam, Ayers, and Gagarin, were honored last month in Washington D.C. by the pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, with the Superior Airmanship Award. It’s only the fifth time the award had been given, and also put them in the union magazine’s cover. Behnam’s family, including his two boys and two girls were there with him.
Behnam still flies with United Airlines and has been doing so for more than 30 years. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of why the engine cover came off.