The modern day jet engine is a piece of engineering perfection, a real work of art in the magical world of aviation. Yet on Tuesday, April 17th the magic failed and ended with terror aboard Southwest Airlines 1380.
The jet engine can best be broken down into four succinct sections; Suck, Squeeze, Bang and Blow.
As air rushes into the front of the jet engine (Suck), as the fan blades spin which then allows the air flow to be streamlined into a smaller pressurized stream (Squeeze). From here the air is mixed with fuel and ignited (Bang), which then forces the air outside the back of the engine which produces the necessary thrust (Blow) for controlled flight.
One of the other aspects of the engine is the unit is designed to be self-contained. Even in the event of a critical malfunction the damaged is to be contained within the engine itself, with nothing propelled out of the exterior cowling which could inflict damage on the aircraft. (The cowl is the exterior portion of the engine, similar to the hood of a car over an engine.)
In 1973 a National Airlines DC-10 from Miami to San Francisco suffered a massive engine failure and the debris from the exploding engine pierced the side of the aircraft blowing out a window which resulted in a passenger being sucked out and killed. It was from incidents such as this that forced jet engine manufacturers to design an engine that would remain intact, even through the most violent malfunction. Because of these changes, we see very few uncontained catastrophic engine failures in commercial aviation around the world.
Yet, on August 27, 2016 Southwest Airlines flight 3472 experienced an engine malfunction over the Gulf of Mexico that was so severe pieces of the engine pierced the exterior of the aircraft creating a 5x16” hole in the side of the aircraft. There were no injuries and the plane landed safely but it was a highly unusual occurrence and the team from the National Transportation Safety Board conducted a thorough investigation and concluded (in their initial report) that one one of the fan blades (in the Suck portion of the engine) separated.
Within the initial report the Safety Board’s recommendation was that similar engines be inspected for evidence of possible metal fatigue, in order to reduce the likelihood of a similar incident. This recommendation was made because we had an engine malfunction and explode, creating a hole and decompression within the aircraft. We could have learned from this incident, making commercial aviation even safer than it was – but the recommendation was never followed.
The Federal Aviation Administration could have issued an Airworthiness Directive, mandating that airlines with similar engines conduct the required safety inspections prior to the aircraft manufacturer’s recommended engine inspection maintenance schedule. Instead, the FAA “recommended” that airlines voluntarily remove their aircraft from service to conduct the timely and expensive maintenance checks. In short, the airlines (including Southwest) said “No.”
Shortly thereafter the aircraft manufacturers also chimed in, recommending immediate inspections take place and their requests were also met with a collective refusal to inspect their engines even after a highly unusual and dangerous engine malfunction had occurred. Instead, airlines would continue with their business as usual progression until the maintenance schedule called for the required inspections.
Less than two years after the Southwest Airlines engine malfunction over the Gulf of Mexico, we have the terror of Southwest 1380 unfolding except this time when the engine explodes pieces of the engine strike a window, causing an immediate and explosive decompression to occur – killing a woman who was seated next to the window.
The aircraft’s flight systems were also affected, causing the crew to land the aircraft with fewer wing-flaps (air brakes) than usual causing a much higher landing speed than normal.
In the aftermath of the event the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to issue the Airworthiness Directive, forcing airlines to (finally) inspect the fan blades on similar aircraft engines (more than 8,000 are used around the world as of this date).
Southwest Airlines has indicated they will immediately respond and has begun the process of issuing the expect apologies and even began writing initial checks of $5,000 to passengers aboard the flight (some were vouchers for future flights). The idea here could be to get as many passengers to accept the compensation now, before the costly lawsuits begin to line up.
Southwest Airlines is an incredible airline and has clearly set the standard for decades on how an airline should be operated and how customers should be treated. In this case though, the airline may have dropped the ball allowing the pressure to continue their daily flight operation override the decision on removing planes from their flight schedule to conduct the engine inspections as recommended.
If Southwest is found to be at fault, look for a hefty fine to be levied by the FAA and changes to the required maintenance schedule of this particular engine. One cannot help but wonder what the impact of these inspections would have been had they been carried out prior to the events of April 17th. Sadly, we will never know.