UPDATED: One Killed When 737 Engine Fails

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UPDATED: A female passenger was killed when an engine failed in flight aboard a Southwest Airlines 737 at 32,000 feet on Tuesday morning, sending shrapnel flying that broke a window and entered the cabin. The crew, en route from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field on Tuesday morning, diverted to Philadelphia and made a safe emergency landing about 11 a.m. CBS News has reported that the deceased passenger has been identified as Jennifer Riordan, a married mother of two, who worked as a Wells Fargo bank executive and lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Associated Press has reported that when the window broke, Riordan was pulled partly out the window by the sudden decompression, and was pulled back into the cabin by nearby passengers, but she was severely hurt. Seven others suffered minor injuries. The death is the first to occur due to an accident aboard a U.S. passenger airline since 2009. Tuesday evening, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, in a video message posted on Twitter, said, "This is a sad day...I want to extend our deepest sympathies for the family and loved ones of our deceased customer."

Southwest Airlines captain Tammie Jo Shults, 56, was in the cockpit during the emergency. Audio of the crew's conversation with ATC (courtesy of ATClive.net) can be heard here. Passengers commended the crew for their cool-headed response. Shults walked through the aisle and talked with passengers to make sure they were okay after the plane touched down, the AP reported. "She has nerves of steel, that lady. I applaud her," Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the AP.  "I'm going to send her a Christmas card, I'm going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome."

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt held a brief news conference Tuesday afternoon in Washington before departing for Philadelphia. He said the engines on the 737 are the CFM56, which are very widely used. They are manufactured by CFM International, a 50/50 joint company owned by Safran Aircraft Engines and GE. Sumwalt said 144 passengers and five crew were on board the aircraft. Investigators will determine whether or not the engine experienced an "uncontained" failure, he said, which depends on what parts of the engine became detached. It was clear, however, that debris from the engine hit the window. This was reportedly the first fatality ever on a Southwest flight.

Tuesday evening, Sumwalt held a second briefing from Phildephia, and said a piece of the cowling from the damaged engine had been found on the ground in Pennsylvania, about 50 miles from the landing site. He also said a preliminary investigation of the engine showed that a fan blade had separated, and there appeared to be evidence of metal fatigue at the point of failure. An AD affecting the engine was issued about two years ago, but Sumwalt said his team has not yet determined if the accident engine was affected by it or if so, if the AD had been complied with. He said Southwest managment has already said they will begin enhanced inspection procedures for their engines, using advanced technologies beyond what is required.

"This should not happen," Sumwalt said. He also said, in response to questions from the press, that he had not yet listened to the CVR but he had heard the ATC tapes and he felt the crew had done an "excellent job... my hat's off to them."

Audio files, provided by LiveATC.net, are from Philadelphia Approach, the Tower, and the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY).







Comments (18)

it seems these un-contained engine failures are becoming all to common.

Posted by: bruce postlethwait | April 17, 2018 1:36 PM    Report this comment

Stunning photos of the remains of the engine (looks like it's missing the whole bypass fan) and the missing window. According to Wikipedia "the CFM56 have an in-flight shutdown rate of 1 incident per 333,333 hours" Pretty good odds of surviving your flight.

Posted by: BRUCE CLAYMAN | April 17, 2018 3:39 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, I can only think of a handful of these in recent memory (both on A380s). Considering the thousands of flights every day it's a ridiculously small percentage statistically.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | April 17, 2018 3:47 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, I can only think of a handful of these failures in the last ten years or so - both on A380s. Considering the thousands of flights that land uneventfully every day an uncontained failure like this is the rarest of events.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | April 17, 2018 3:50 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, let's not jump for the panic button just yet.

A quick scan of the internet, including WN1380 here, turns up 11 uncontained engine failures in the past 45 years. I will concede that 5 of those incidents occurred since 2015, so there is an observable uptick in the incident rate. However, three key considerations must be made.

Today's commercial aviation industry includes thousands of jet aircraft, each operating between 1 and 4 turbine engines, running every day of the year. A low-ball estimate puts us at tens of MILLIONS of operating hours for turbine engines every year. Even with the recent uptick, we are showing a maximum of two incidents in ten million hours.

Staying on the statistical front, aircraft are built to be reliable within a certain range of incident likelihood. Depending on the aircraft component or system and the failure mode under analysis, we're looking at a designed failure rate of one in a billion, or more, flight hours. Just like you can't call a die unfair because you rolled seventeen [1]s in a row that one game night, a local uptick from one in, say, ten billion to two in ten million is nothing more than unfortunate luck. These statistical analyses are the basis of any insurance plan, and part of the business for anyone in this industry. Southwest purchased their 737s knowing full well they weren't perfect, or indestructible. Regardless, that they suffered their first and only passenger fatality in more than four decades of service is a testament to Southwest, Boeing, and the National Airspace System.

There, of course, remains room to improve. Air travel in terms of passenger volume and aircraft in the sky is burgeoning. The same safety standards that might produce zero incidents for a small system is bound to produce some failures and casualties as it grows larger and larger, by eventuality. Manufacturers and regulators are always pressing to reduce the risks in what is already the safest mode of transport on Earth. (Did we already forget that 2017 was the safest year in air travel, with *zero* reported deaths on commercial jets?)

Today's incident is tragic, and the family of that one casualty has all of our sympathies and prayers. Today only tells me that we, as an industry, have plenty of room to improve this excellent industry.

Posted by: Anthony Eaton | April 17, 2018 4:13 PM    Report this comment

I'm being fussy, but shrapnel is a poor choice of words. Debris would be better.

Posted by: Bill Schmidt | April 17, 2018 5:03 PM    Report this comment

Actually, shrapnel has been used historically in such circumstances, as it implies that the pieces were moving rapidly and caused damage upon impact. Debris does not imply damage to other items.

Posted by: Ed Wischmeyer | April 17, 2018 5:18 PM    Report this comment

Ed, there was a minor set-to on the CMP forum recently regarding the proper use of the word "shrapnel". You may have been a party to it. :)

You'll take comfort that the consensus was that use of the word is acceptable, eve if you are describing general fragments and not the parts designed specifically to maim and kill.

Back to our subject ...

Posted by: Mike Massimini | April 17, 2018 5:42 PM    Report this comment

First fatality ON a Southwest flight. But Southwest ran off the end of the runway at MDW and killed someone on the ground 10-15 years ago.

Posted by: jvo fnr | April 17, 2018 6:53 PM    Report this comment

Yet another example of WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT in flight at all times.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 17, 2018 8:17 PM    Report this comment

Did anyone confirm that the one passenger was NOT wearing her seat belt?

Airline windows tend to be low, around shoulder height. So even while wearing a seat it would be possible for one's head and (maybe) shoulders to be "sucked out", yet still restrained by the seat belt.

Frankly, I think the description of "sucked halfway out" is typical witness hyperbole. Despite what "Goldfinger" taught us, I can't imagine a human body fitting through a small airline window to any great degree (but maybe I lack imagination). Granted seeing someone's head out the window is alarming, and no doubt injurious to the passenger involved.

But, I find it hard to so quickly blame the passenger - it's quite possible she was doing everything right when all Hell broke loose.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 18, 2018 9:01 AM    Report this comment

Physics confirms that a seatbelt will hold down a human body; that's what they are designed to do.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 18, 2018 9:31 AM    Report this comment

In my opinion this was a rapid decompression. I did not hear the Captain request an emergency descent nor did it sound as if they complied with the first item on the rapid D checklist - oxygen masks on. Also her comment to ATC that "we are missing part of the airplane" tells the controller nothing about the ability to control the airplane.

Posted by: Joseph Rajacic | April 18, 2018 1:10 PM    Report this comment

"Physics confirms that a seatbelt will hold down a human body; that's what they are designed to do."

Yup - but since it's a lap-belt the upper torso is free to lean way to one side or the other. And with the window being shoulder-height, one could easily lean out the window were it to open, yet still be belted into their seat.

More recent news reports are saying that the passenger killed had her seatbelt on.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 19, 2018 9:02 AM    Report this comment

"with the window being shoulder-height, one could easily lean out the window were it to open,"

Right, SHOULDER height, which means you would have to be pulled up and then out.
As you know, unless you tighten your belt, having it "on" is worthless.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 19, 2018 11:00 AM    Report this comment

I don't know (and we may never find out) how "tight" or "loose" her seatbelt was. What's the engineering definition of "snug"?

But my point about "shoulder-height" means that the windows are typically below the top of a passenger's head. They need to duck down to see out, not lift up. At shoulder-height, one can simply lean over and stick their head out the window without their butt leaving the cushion. Even if this passenger had her seatbelt cranked down as tight as Patty Wagstaff's, there's enough flex and stretch in the body to allow her head, arm, and shoulder to be sucked out.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 19, 2018 12:48 PM    Report this comment

Failure to inform ATC on decompression event requiring an emergency decent. An engine failure on a twin is only a reason to decent if unable to hold altitude..... If this is a woman or a man flying does not play a role, and staying calm during an engine failure on a twin is expected of any ME rated pilot worth his/her ticket.
Another issue is that medical assistance was called much too late, after the decompression the purser should have immediately informed the pilot on serious injuries, and trauma care requested from ATC already. I also wonder how the secure cockpit door behaved during the decompression.....

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | May 2, 2018 10:17 AM    Report this comment

The incident clearly reveals the composite cowling is a weak protection against high rpm titanic blades.
I suggest use of titanium cowling. It may be costlier , but is easier to fabricate, stronger, offers less drag, resists flying debris penetration, and engineers can climb on for inspection without the risk of scratching or denting. Please pass this on to the engine designers and regulators.

Posted by: mayampurath jayamohan | November 24, 2018 6:50 AM    Report this comment

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