What Happened On That Southwest Flight

Apr 19, 2018
Originally published on April 19, 2018 6:22 am
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All right. The Federal Aviation Administration says it will soon require new inspections of fan blades in jet engines like the one that exploded on a Southwest Airlines plane this week. Shrapnel from that explosion blew out a window and pierced the plane's fuselage, killing one passenger and injuring seven others. National Transportation Safety Board investigators say the blade that broke showed signs of fatigue, but that it's too soon to say if there's a broader problem with this type of jet engine. Here's more from NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Southwest Airlines flight number 1380 started like most others, taking off smoothly from New York's LaGuardia Airport as it headed to Dallas Tuesday. But about 20 minutes in, as the aircraft soared more than 32,000 feet above eastern Pennsylvania...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN TONIGHT")

MARTY MARTINEZ: All of a sudden, we hear this loud explosion. And like, within a span of five seconds, all of the oxygen masks deployed.

SCHAPER: Passenger Marty Martinez (ph) explaining the frightening flight on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN TONIGHT")

MARTINEZ: Just a few seconds later, another explosion happened and it was a window that just completely exploded.

SCHAPER: The cabin lost pressure, and a woman was nearly sucked out of the window. Passengers pulled her back in, and a retired nurse on the flight performed CPR. With one of the Boeing 737's two engines blown out, the plane rolled 41 degrees to its side before the pilots could correct it, and the plane quickly started to descend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN TONIGHT")

MARTINEZ: As you can imagine, everybody was going crazy and yelling and screaming.

SCHAPER: While there was chaos in the cabin, in the cockpit, Captain Tammie Jo Shults calmly radioed air traffic control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAMMIE JO SHULTS: Southwest 1380 has an engine fire. Descending.

UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER #1: Southwest 1380, are you descending right now?

SHULTS: Yes, sir. We're single-engine descending. Have a fire in number one.

SCHAPER: The controller asks her what airport she wants to go to, and on this recording on the website liveatc.net, Captain Shults chooses the closest, Philadelphia. So that air traffic controller turns her over to another.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER #2: I understand your emergency. Let me know when you want to go in.

SHULTS: So we have a part of the aircraft missing so we're going to need to slow down a bit.

SCHAPER: They calmly talk about the speed and altitude to maintain, that she'll need to land on a longer runway and how she'll make her approach. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHULTS: OK. Could you have the medical meet us there on the runway, as well? We've got injured passengers.

UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER #2: Injured passengers. OK. And are you, is your airplane physically on fire?

SHULTS: No. It's not on fire, but part of it's missing.

SCHAPER: Shults skillfully lands that severely damaged plane, and 43-year-old Albuquerque bank executive Jennifer Riordon is rushed to the hospital, where the mother of two is pronounced dead. Meanwhile, investigators are trying to piece back together that engine that exploded. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt says an engine fan blade broke off in flight. That blade had a fatigue fracture at the hub over the center of the fan, and, he says, another fracture about halfway through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SUMWALT: It appears that the fatigue fracture was the initiating event which later caused that secondary failure.

SCHAPER: Experts say fatigue fractures are tiny, microscopic cracks often not even visible to the human eye. A similar engine failure on a Southwest 737 in August of 2016 prompted the manufacturer of the CFM-56 engines to urge airlines to make more frequent ultrasonic inspections of the blades, but the FAA held off on ordering such inspections. The NTSB's Sumwalt says it's not yet clear if this engine would have been subject to that order. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUMWALT: Engine failures like this should not occur, obviously. And, so yes, we're very concerned about this.

SCHAPER: And concerned, too, that shrapnel escaped the engine, which is designed to contain it. That engine and the Boeing 737 have excellent safety records, and experts say such failures are extremely rare. Nonetheless, the FAA announced last night it will now require new ultrasonic inspections of some CFM-56 engines after they reach a certain number of takeoffs and landings. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.