Flight's Engine Fails, Pilots Continue Flying

Just nine seconds after taking off on Feb. 20, 2005, there was trouble on British Airways Flight 268.

On its flight from Los Angeles to London, one of the 747's four engines malfunctioned and burst into flames.

"It appears we have flames coming out, number one or number two engines. … We're shutting it down," the flight's pilots told Los Angeles Air Traffic Control.

The fire was extinguished, but the engine was knocked out of commission. But instead of turning back, the pilot decided to continue on to England, 5,000 miles away.

"We just decided we want to set off on our flight plan route and get as far as we can," the pilot told the air traffic controllers. "So we'd like clearance to continue as planned."

"The tower controller, who had seen the fire, asked the departure controller, 'Is he going?' " said Scott McCartney, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who covered the story. "And he said, 'Yes, he's going,' and then a bit later he said, 'If you saw what we saw you would be amazed by that.' "

U.S. regulations are very clear about what a pilot should do if an engine goes out.

"If you lose one engine you land at the nearest suitable airport," said John Nance, an ABC News aviation consultant, "and you could lose your license."

But British regulations allow the pilot to decide if it's safe to go on. The pilot consulted with British Airways officials in England. They decided to keep flying.

The incident raised questions about whether the decision involving flight 268 was influenced by economic factors. After all, dumping fuel to return to Los Angeles International Airport and compensating passengers could have cost more than $300,000.

British Airways said economics played no role.

"The Air Accident Safety Investigation Board, Britain's version of the NTSB, found that the aircraft had sufficient fuel and performance to continue the flight safely," the airline said.

Flight 268 did make it to England, although the plane landed in Manchester, not London, because it was running low on fuel.

A year and a half later, questions remain: Did the airline put the passengers and crew at risk?

"That's what happened here," Nance told ABC News. "They reduced the margins of safety. And some statement was made by somebody in Britain that well, it's almost an infinitesimal possibility that they might lose another engine. … That just isn't an operable statement."

The case was not isolated. The Wall Street Journal reported that a total of 15 British Airways 747s in the last five years have lost one engine and kept going to their destination.