South West Airline Protested Against Inspection Order After First SWA Fan Blade Accident in 2016

South West Airlines (SWA) protested against a directive from the manufacturers of its CFM56-7B jet engines to inspect all the airline’s similar engines after the first incident involving a broken fan blade on a flight in 2016.  The near disaster last Tuesday on SWA flight 1380 was also caused by a broken fan blade it has been confirmed by National Transport Safety Board staff.

It appears from an initial inspection by the NTSB that a single fan blade snapped off near its connection to the left hand side jet engine’s hub, about 20 minutes into the flight. The Boeing 737-700 was on a scheduled flight from La Guardia airport in New York to Dallas Texas. The fan blade was one of 24 which are used to direct air onto the engine. NTSB inspectors suspect that the fan blade’s fracture was due to metal fatigue. The blade appears to have also broken about half way down its length.

The broken fan blade’s ejection from its position inside the engine triggered a series of events which could have been more catastrophic than it actually was. The engine exploded, causing shrapnel to hit the aircraft’s fuselage. A hole was ripped through one of the windows in the plane, causing an immediate drop in air pressure. The passenger closest to the hole, Wells Fargo bank executive, Jennifer Riordan, was sucked partially out of the gap and suffered serious injuries to her upper torso.  Other passengers managed to retrieve her body from the gap and deliver CPR and defibrillation on her, but were not able to prevent her death.

The plane’s pilots were able to land relatively safely at Philadelphia International Airport within 30 minutes of the explosion without further serious injuries. The whole incident was understandably extremely frightening and many of the passengers were expecting the worst. The behavior of the cabin staff and pilots, especially ex U.S. navy fighter pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, has come in for praise for the way they handled the crisis.

The possibility that the broken fan might be a symptom of a wider potential defect is what is worrying both NTSB and SWA officials who have been dealing with the accident. Despite the fact that air travel from a statistical point of view is much safer than traveling by road, the possibility of a large number of  fatalities if a plane does crash or explode in mid air is always on most people’s minds when contemplating the relative safety of air travel .

This is not the only time that a fan blade has broken off in a CFM56-7B engine. It happened once before, on a SWA flight in 2016. In that incident, the broken fan blade ripped off part of one of the wings, but the passenger cabin’s integrity was not compromised. The plane managed to land at Pensacola in Florida without any further damage or injury. According to the South West Airlines CEO, this is the first time that a window has been smashed during a flight.

SWA engineers and 40 technicians from the engine manufacturers, a partnership between French firm Safran and General Electric, now expect to complete full inspection of 400-600 engines in about a month from now.

Despite the fact that two similar plane engines have experienced what appears to have been the same type of fault, the NTSB ‘s chairman, Robert Sumwalt, is not yet prepared to say that the fan blade problem is a systemic issue.  The engine manufacturer advised SWA to have an ultrasound inspection of fan blades on all CFM56-7B engines after the 2016 incident, but either this wasn’t sufficient to detect a potential problem in South West Airlines flight 1380’s engine, or the metal fatigue at that point hadn’t reached a critical stage, or SWA did not think that a full inspection was justified.

No doubt Jennifer Riordan’s family will want definitive answers from the ongoing inspections and will want to know whether the disaster for their family could have been avoided and who or what may be to blame.

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