One passenger died and several others were injured when a Boeing 737 operated by Southwest en route from New York to Dallas suffered a serious engine blowout. Shrapnel broke a passenger window and penetrated the fuselage, forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
A serious in-flight accident aboard a Southwest Airlines 737 killed a passenger Tuesday, a rare and traumatic event in the nation’s typically safe aviation system that raised concerns focused on the aircraft’s engine and the cowl surrounding the engine fan.
It was the first passenger fatality due to an accident on a U.S. airline in more than nine years, and the first in Southwest’s history.
It happened not on an old airplane but on a Boeing 737, the reliable mainstay of daily domestic flights around the country and the world.
In addition to the death, several other passengers were injured when Southwest Flight 1380, en route from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field, suffered a serious engine blowout 20 minutes into the flight at 32,500 feet, forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
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The left engine exploded with such force that shrapnel penetrated the aircraft’s fuselage and broke a window in the passenger cabin, causing depressurization and the deployment of oxygen masks.
The pilots — Capt. Tammie Jo Shults and an unidentified co-pilot — guided the plane carrying 144 passengers and five crew to a smooth landing. According to flight-tracking service FlightAware, the jet landed 20 minutes after the explosion.
Emergency vehicles drenched the damaged left engine in foam to prevent a fire as passengers exited the plane via stairs on the right side.
The woman who died was identified by Albuquerque TV news station KOAT as Jennifer Riordan, 43, a mother of two children and vice president of community relations at Wells Fargo in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In preliminary briefings, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that inspection of the damaged engine revealed that one of the titanium blades on the big fan had broken off at the root, and that there was evidence of metal fatigue at the site where it broke.
He said metal fatigue is a major problem.
“There are supposed to be inspections to look for potential cracks,” he said. “There need to be proper procedures in place to inspect for them.”
Sumwalt said the inlet cowling that surrounds the fan was found on the ground in Bucks County, about 60 miles from the airport.
The last fatal accident on board a U.S. carrier was the February 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people.
Southwest’s only previous fatal accident was in 2005, when a 737 landing in Chicago slid off a snowy runway onto an adjacent highway, killing a boy in a passing car.
“A lot of blood”
In a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly called it “a very somber day.”
Early reports from passengers on board Flight 1380 described a terrifying scene as the air pressure at the broken window sucked a woman partly out through the opening.
That set off a desperate scramble by fellow passengers and flight attendants to drag her back inside the plane.
“The top half of her torso was out the window,” said Max Kraidelman, 20, a college student who was on the flight. “There was a lot of blood because she was hit by some of the shrapnel coming off the engine after it exploded.”
The woman was unconscious when pulled back into the cabin.
“They were doing CPR on her and using the defibrillator while we were landing,” Kraidelman said. “They were working on her while everyone else had their oxygen mask on.”
It’s not clear if the woman was Riordan.
Meanwhile, others tried to block holes in the fuselage with jackets.
Passenger Marty Martinez told CBS News that many passengers wept and screamed during the plane’s rapid descent.
“It was the scariest experience,” Martinez said.
Similar 2016 incident
The shrapnel damage to the plane’s fuselage and photos of the damage suggest this was a dangerous “uncontained engine failure.”
Such incidents occur about three or four times a year worldwide, according to the NTSB.
But Sumwalt said it isn’t immediately certain that this was such a failure.
The engine pods, or nacelles, that surround a jet-engine core have strengthened protection rings designed to keep shrapnel from flying out sideways into the wing or fuselage.
While it’s clear in this case that metal debris did come out of the engine and hit the fuselage, Sumwalt said it’s too early to be sure how that happened. It’s possible the shrapnel came out the back of the engine rather than penetrating those protection rings, which technically would not be an uncontained failure.
Still, photos of the damaged left engine show the inlet cowl that surrounds the fan at the front completely gone and the nacelle panels covering the engine core farther back shredded and ruptured.
The missing engine inlet cowl resembles the damage in a previous Southwest 737 accident in August 2016, though this time the rupture of the nacelle behind the inlet is much more extensive.
The 2016 engine blowout occurred on a flight from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, with 99 passengers and five crew on board and forced an emergency landing in Pensacola.
The NTSB investigation into that accident concluded that a titanium engine-fan blade had also broken off due to metal fatigue, flinging debris that made a 5-inch by 16-inch hole in the fuselage just above the left wing and causing the passenger cabin to depressurize.
However, in that case, the interior of the passenger cabin was not penetrated.
After that accident, engine-maker CFM International issued a service bulletin to all airlines recommending an ultrasonic inspection of certain fan blades and, if they fail the inspection, the replacement of those parts.
The service bulletin says the inspection can be done in two man hours and doesn’t require the engine to be taken off the wing.
A year after the accident, in August 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed an Airworthiness Directive that would make those inspections mandatory.
The FAA noted that though the fan-blade failure was contained by the engine case, “there was subsequent uncontained forward release of inlet cowl and other debris.”
The proposed directive stated that on engines that have flown more than 15,000 cycles, the fan blades would have to be inspected within six months of the rule being finalized, while on those with fewer cycles the blades would be inspected within 18 months.
Eight months later, the FAA still has not finalized that directive.
An FAA safety engineer, who asked for anonymity because he spoke without authorization from the agency, said that seems an unreasonable delay.
“In the notice, the FAA proposed inspections within six months,” he said. “How can you wait so long to finalize the rule?”
The engineer added that if maintenance is not mandatory, some airlines will put it off until the next major overhaul. Engines are routinely overhauled every 30,000 flights.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the counterpart to the FAA in Europe, last month did finalize an Airworthiness Directive requiring airlines operating in Europe to perform the inspections recommended by CFM.
It’s not known whether the recommended blade inspections were done on the engine involved in Tuesday’s accident.
Kelly, the Southwest CEO, said the airplane had undergone a routine maintenance inspection two days earlier, on April 15.
And he said the engine that ruptured had been in service for 40,000 flights, with its last overhaul 10,000 flights ago.
“There’s no information there was any issue with the airplane or the engines,” he said.
Sumwalt said that Tuesday’s accident may not be related to the 2016 accident.
He said that Kelly assured him that Southwest will immediately begin enhanced ultrasound inspections of the engine-fan blades on its entire fleet of about 700 Boeing 737s.
Aside from the recurrence of a broken engine fan blade, the accident also raises the question of how the engine inlet cowl failed and was stripped away entirely in two separate 737 accidents.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” said the FAA engineer. “The inlet cowl is not supposed to come apart.”
In February, a fan blade broke off in flight on a much larger jet powered by a Pratt & Whitney engine — a Boeing 777, United Airlines Flight 1175 from San Francisco to Honolulu — and similarly resulted in the complete loss of the inlet cowl.
That plane made an emergency landing in Honolulu and no one was hurt.
The engine inlet cowl is part of the airframe and Boeing’s responsibility.
An NTSB investigation team flew to Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon for an on-site inspection.
The damaged engine will be removed and shipped to an NTSB facility for teardown and detailed examination.
The plane in Tuesday’s accident was an 18-year-old 737-700. However, the engines may have been swapped out for maintenance and so could be younger.
More than 7,000 Boeing 737s are in service around the world
“The 737 is the workhorse of the airline industry,” said Southwest’s Kelly. “The airplane in my opinion is proven. It’s very reliable. It has the greatest success of any airplane type over a very long period of time.”
Kelly said the death of the passenger was “a tragic loss” and pledged to support her family. He also commended the pilots and flight attendants “for their swift action and for safely landing this aircraft.”
“They handled the situation magnificently,” Kelly said.
The CFM56 engine on Boeing’s 737s is manufactured by CFM International, a joint venture between GE and Safran of France, and is one of the most reliable jet engines in aviation history.
That specific engine model has been in service since 1997 and has flown for 350 million flight hours, said CFM spokeswoman Jamie Jewell.
She added that the engine-maker’s worldwide team is expressing “deepest sympathies and condolences” to the family of the passenger who died and to those injured.
The NTSB will direct the accident inquiry, with Boeing and CFM providing technical assistance.
Sumwalt said the extensive investigation will likely take a year to 15 months to complete.