Swiss International Air LX40 (a brand new 777-300ER) was en route from Zurich to LA on 1 Feb 2017 when one of the GE90 engines shut itself down because of data from its self-monitoring algorithms.

The crew decided to emergency land at Iqaluit airport on the southern tip of Baffin Island in Canada, which is extremely remote. Getting a new engine to Iqaluit and installed was an incredible odyssey in itself.

The photos of the incident are such that it seems that landing at Iqaluit and trying to do maintenance and take off again would be more dangerous than a diversion to somewhere larger like Nuuk in Greenland.

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Given that the 777-300ER could have easily flown the remainder to LA with one engine -- which means it could have easily diverted to a nearby larger airport -- why didn't it? Are ETOPS rules so strict that you must land at the nearest airport and such that the nearest reasonable airport would not be permitted?

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    $\begingroup$ I know nothing about ETOPS, but Swiss may have their own operating procedures that applied here. And according to the Aviation Herald report the pilots were "puzzled" about why the engine shut down. As a general rule, if the aircraft systems start doing unexpected things and you don't know why, you want to get it on the ground ASAP before a larger problem develops. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ If diverting to Iqaluit were really that dangerous it wouldn't be allowed as an ETOPS diversion airport. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ I very much agree with the comments that if you feel you may have a bona fide emergency, you need to land as soon as possible at an acceptable airport. Iqualt seems eminently acceptable: 8605' long, 200' wide (50 wider than the usual U.S. rwy), an ILS, and an air carrier airport which would mean emergency equipment. And, as previously commented, difficulties in maintenance after getting on the ground should not enter in to the captain's decision if he felt he had an emergency. Besides, there would no problem getting an empty 777-300ER off an 8605' long runway afterward. It was a good choice. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that it wasn't a computer that decided to shut the engine down in this mishap -- it was that the engine's fuel pump had come unhooked mechanically from its drive, causing the engine to die of fuel starvation. ANY jet engine would have shut itself down if it failed in a similar way... $\endgroup$ Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ The maintenance and subsequent take-off weren't more dangerous for the passengers than diversion to a more distant runway, because they weren't on board for those parts of the process. And the airline's first duty is the safety of its passengers -- its own employees come second. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 8:50

2 Answers 2


Given that the 777-300ER could have easily flown the remainder to LA with one engine -- which means it could have easily diverted to a nearby larger airport -- why didn't it?

Standard operating procedure for engine failure on a twin calls for emergency and landing as soon as possible. That was their closest diversion point at the time, so there they landed.

This is an instance of a more general rule that whenever all redundancy on a critical system is lost, it warrants an emergency and requires landing at nearest suitable airport. Continuing the flight on one engine would most likely considered reckless operation.

Regarding your suggested alternate, “somewhere larger like Nuuk” is definitely not true. Nuuk has runway of mere 3,117 ft, far too short for a 777. The 8,605 ft at Iqaluit is adequate, and it is the standard diversion airport for this area.

Plus it was at least 300 nmi further. You are not risking that when your gliding distance from FL360 is ~120 nmi (and there is no way one engine can keep you up in FL360, so it's more like FL300 and ~90 nmi) and you really can't be sure the problem that killed the one engine is not going to affect the other too.

Also, regarding the complicated repairs, there is no better place nearby. It is just as cold in the whole region and there are no heated hangars where a 777 would fit, so they needed the tent to provide reasonable working environment around the engine in the cold weather and would need it in any other airport in the region. That's why they have it.

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    $\begingroup$ Hey, sorry, I'm new around here. What does FL360 & FL290 mean? Googling it appears to just bring up cameras to buy. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @PopeyGilbert, “Flight Level” and the (pressure) altitude in hundreds of feet. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @PopeyGilbert Short answer: 36,000ft and 29,000ft. Longer and much more accurate answers here. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ I was just wondering @JanHudec on a plane like that these days. Does the computer system know at all times "the nearest field to divert to, if you have to divert" .. ? Does that info appear when needed (or perhaps, it's just always shown at all times as you fly along) - what's the deal on that? If yes, does the system understand subtleties like, which one is best based on your current heading, altitude and so on? Or indeed do the pilots just have to quickly look up the nearest one; or they have it written down as part of a plan - or? Cheers $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Sounds like a question to ask as you know... a question. :) $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 19:29

Standard procedure for all twins is "nearest suitable airport"

If you're in a twin, and an engine quits (especially over a remote area like the Arctic), you set a direct course for the nearest suitable airport for your aircraft. Issues like passenger comfort and availability of flights to rebook people are close to the bottom of the pilot's list in such a situation, as you've lost enough redundancy that continuing the flight is no longer an option (the next engine failure turns you into a glider).

Iqaluit-the-airport isn't as remote as you make it out to be

While the countryside surrounding Iqaluit and its airport is quite barren and rugged, largely isolating the city, the city itself is well-stocked with services for its size -- it is the territorial capital of Nunavut, after all. It has a full hospital, fire and rescue services (in addition to the ARFF at the airport), and most of the other trappings of a reasonable city (it hosted the G7 finance meeting back in 2010). In addition, most of the folks there speak English, and the city has a good track record in past diversion events.

The airport itself is also well-equipped -- it has a full air carrier runway complete with an ILS approach, ARFF services of its own, and scheduled air carrier service to Montreal, Ottawa, and Yellowknife as well as other destinations in the Canadian Arctic. There's also a reasonably sized terminal building there, and full-time Customs staffing there that could slowly handle the passengers from such a diversion if the stranding extended for days.

Transpolar operators plan for this stuff

Operators who fly over the Arctic are required to have contingency plans for exactly this type of event. Such planning includes being able to send a replacement plane in a timely fashion to pick up the passengers, having the ability to get parts out to the airplane-on-ground (AOG), and being able to perform maintenance in such a location or ferry the aircraft out if need be. Coordination of rescue services (including cold weather exposure suits for crew), the ability to communicate with ATC and airline dispatchers, radiation concerns due to solar flares, and the ability to navigate where magnetic compasses are no good are all included as well.

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    $\begingroup$ As the operator of a twin engine aircraft, I disagree with your first point. I would choose an airport considering multiple factors including but not limited to: weather; terrain; airport facilities including runway length, instrument procedures, emergency equipment, passenger facilities, and maintenance facilities; and essential passenger accommodations outside the airport facility. In many cases I would gladly bypass an airport with a suitable runway to choose a suitable airport slightly further away. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @JonathanWalters -- yeah, I was a bit over-the-top with my wording there, thanks $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2017 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ For someone else's take on this see also: airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=733499 $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ And for §121 operations, see §121.565. To my knowledge the FAA no longer offers an official definition of "suitable airport". No such requirement exists for §135 operations. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ it's fairly amazing that they have street-view coverage of Iqaluit ! indeed, the airport is right in the town, literally touching the various hotels, town hall etc. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 18:59

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