Reading this page, a retired American Airlines pilot quotes:

We tell passengers what they need to know. We don’t tell them things that are going to scare the pants off them. So you’ll never hear me say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we just had an engine failure,’ even if that’s true.

Given this, how can an observant passenger sitting over wing (seeing most likely very little of the engine), determine if a flameout or shutdown has occurred from observation?

This is applicable to an aircraft not unlike the Boeing 737 (which I fly on often).

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    $\begingroup$ As a passenger on a plane, the best thing you can do to enhance safety is to rest and be fit for your way from the airport - sorry but that's it. Feel as comfortable as you can in this seats rather than being stressed listening and looking for every detail. $\endgroup$
    – Falk
    Feb 24, 2014 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ Not all captains will keep this mum. Quote from the captain of British Airways Flight 9: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress." (source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2014 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @FredLarson Well, that would be more of an extraordinary circumstance. I'm referring to the more common single-engine failure that is trained for and has a known plan of action to handle in most cases. $\endgroup$
    – nanofarad
    Feb 24, 2014 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ What are you going to do about it? Demand to be let out before you die in a fireball? The pilots are well trained for an engine failure, they will handle it perfectly well. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Brass
    Feb 3, 2018 at 11:11

1 Answer 1


Mainly by the soon to happen descent and landing, probably at a place you weren't expecting to go. :)

If you are seated behind the wing, you might be able to see smoke or flames coming out of the engine, but other times it will just quit with no visible indicaion, depending on the cause of the failure.

Sometimes (usually just after takeoff when the airplane is slow) it is obvious and you can tell by the change in the sound of the airplane (one side suddenly gets quiet or there might be a loud bang depending on why it failed), a sudden yaw in one direction (the nose pulls to one side), and an abrupt pitching down of the nose (done by the pilot to maintain flying speed).

Other times (like during a descent with plenty of speed and the engines at idle, or when the center engine of a three engine airplane fails) it can be hard for even the pilot to tell without looking at the instrumentation, so you probably won't notice it.

Another major clue would be when the seatbelt sign unexpectedly coming on, without an announcement or indication of turbulence, and the flight attendants suddenly putting things away and getting ready for landing, especially when you aren't close to your destination. Being briefed for an emergency landing is also a dead giveaway (no pun intended).

  • $\begingroup$ Failures still occur during level flight at cruising altitude; would those be detected similarly with the changes in sound, yaw, and a downward pitch? $\endgroup$
    – nanofarad
    Feb 23, 2014 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but it wouldn't be as pronounced so it might not be noticeable from the cabin. They would have to start descending before very long though, so if you aren't anywhere close to your destination and the airplane start a descent it's a pretty good clue. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Feb 23, 2014 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ @flyingfisch But, equally, ingestion of foreign material into the engine could cause flames and sparks to spew out of it before it continues to operate just as normal, right? $\endgroup$ Feb 23, 2014 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby True, but loud bangs can also occur without the engine going out either. ;-) $\endgroup$ Feb 23, 2014 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak "This is your captain speaking. Due to some of the passengers being rowdy after I asked you repeatedly to stop, I am now pulling this plane over for a landing right here as promised until you all settle down." $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Oct 1, 2015 at 20:48

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