Investigators are zeroing in on a missing fan blade and fatigued metal on a Southwest Airlines jet engine that exploded mid-flight Tuesday morning, killing one passenger and forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
The Boeing 737 commercial jet en route from New York to Dallas with about 145 passengers on-board had to make the landing at a Philly airport roughly 45 minutes after takeoff, after its left engine exploded. The explosion shook the cabin and sprayed shrapnel that broke a window and partially sucked a woman out of the plane, as passengers and flight attendants erupted in panic.
But pilot Tammy Jo Shults remained calm. The 56-year-old former Navy Top Gun fighter pilot is being hailed as a hero for calmly bringing the plane down safely and averting a much worse disaster.
Shults is heard in audio from the incident saying to air traffic control, "We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” then calmly answering a question from them, saying, “Not fire, not fire, but part of it’s missing. They said there’s a hole and, uh, someone went out.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is sifting through clues to why the engine exploded, causing the first fatality aboard a U.S. commercial airliner since 2009.
Here’s what we know:
Part of the engine was missing when the plane landed
Inspectors said that one of the engine's fan blades was missing when it landed around 11:30 a.m. at Philadelphia International Airport. There were signs of “metal fatigue” where the fan joined with the engine’s hub.
Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the NTSB, told reporters Tuesday that the metal fatigue where the missing blade was is not normal. “This should not happen,” he said, according to Philly Voice. “We want to find out why it happened so that we can make sure that preventive measures are put in place.”
He said the cowling, the metal shielding that surrounds the engine turbine, was found 70 miles north of Philadelphia.
The woman partially sucked out of the plane died
Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old Wells Fargo executive and mother of two from New Mexico, was seated nearest to the engine that blew, and was nearly sucked out the window that broke from engine debris. Passengers on the flight were able to pull her back into the plane, and a retired nurse, among others, performed CPR on her, but she died of her injuries.
“They took someone out on a stretcher. That person was very bloody,” Joseph Marcus, a 24-year-old passenger who was seated near the front of the plane, told the Washington Post.
The pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was incredibly cool as things went down
Shults was one of the first female F-18 Hornet pilots in the Navy’s “Top Gun” program. That training appeared to kick in as she calmly described what was going on with the tower.
When she radio'd that part of the aircraft was missing, the controller on the line sounded more distraught than Shults. And she remained calm as she explained there was a hole and someone had gone out. As she prepared to bring the plane down, she said: "Could you have the medical meet us there on the runway as well? We've got injured passengers."
Shults managed to land the plane on one engine at slow speed with a missing window and depressurized cabin.
Shults was told in her senior year of high school that “there are no professional women pilots,” according to the Daily Beast. Luckily, particularly for those aboard Flight 1380, Shults proved those doubters wrong.
Passengers thought they were going to die
One passenger, Marty Martinez, bought the Wi-Fi as oxygen masks dropped from the plane’s ceiling, fearing that those might be his last moments and wanting to let people know what happened. He opened up Facebook and live-streamed.
Though this incident was terrifying to passengers, and, ultimately fatal, commercial air travel remains remarkably safe. In fact, last year was the safest year on record, according to Dutch aviation consulting firm To70 and the Aviation Safety Network.
Cover image: National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. The Southwest Airlines jet blew the engine at 32,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. She later died, and seven others were injured. (NTSB via AP)