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NTSB Looking at ‘Metal Fatigue' as Possible Cause in Deadly Plane Blown Engine Landing

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said there were no problems with the plane or its engine when it was inspected Sunday

What to Know

  • The National Transportation Safety Board says a person was killed after a plane with engine failure made an emergency landing in Philly
  • NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that there is evidence of what he called "metal fatigue" on the plane
  • Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in Dallas that there were no problems with the plane or its engine when it was inspected on Sunday

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said based on a preliminary examination, there was evidence of what he called "metal fatigue" on the plane that suffered engine failure more than 30,000 feet above, an issue that was not apparent during a routine inspection two days prior.

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One person was killed and seven others were hurt when a Southwest Airlines jet engine shredded into flying pieces of debris 32,000 feet in the air on Tuesday. The corroded engine sent shrapnel shooting through a window as panicked passengers scrambled to save a woman from getting completely sucked out of the depressurized cabin.

Travelers aboard twin-engine Boeing 737 bound from LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field said they were able to pull the woman back into the plane after the blast pulled her part way through the opening.

One person died aboard a flight from LaGuardia to Dallas Love Field in what Southwest Airlines called “an operational event” that left the plane with serious wing damage and at least one blown-out window and forced crews to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia Tuesday morning. Wale Aliyu reports.

The pilots of the plane, which had 149 people aboard, took it into a rapid descent and made an emergency landing in Philadelphia as passengers using oxygen masks said their prayers and braced for impact.

The NTSB sent a team of investigators to Philadelphia soon after the landing. Sumwalt said one of the engine's fan blades was separated and missing. The blade was separated at the point where it would come into the hub and there was evidence of metal fatigue.

Sumwalt added that part of the mangled engine covering was found in Bernville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, and that the investigation will take 12 to 15 months to complete.

The NTSD said they have also already analyzing the plane's black box for a possible cause. 

Southwest said as a precaution it would inspect similar engines in its fleet over the next 30 days. It says it's making the move out of caution.

The dead woman was identified as Jennifer Riordan, a Wells Fargo bank executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Passengers say Riordan was partially sucked out of the plane. Passengers struggled to somehow plug the gaping hole while giving the badly injured woman CPR, but she later died at an area hospital. The seven other victims suffered minor injuries.

Southwest has about 700 planes, all of them 737s, including more than 500 737-700s like the one in Tuesday's accident. It is the world's largest operator of the 737. The 737 is the best-selling jetliner in the world and has a good safety record.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in Dallas that there were no problems with the plane or its engine when it was inspected on Sunday. Kelly added that the plane has gone through 40,000 takeoffs and landings since it was delivered in July 2000. That includes 10,000 since its last overhaul.

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The jet's CFM56-7B engines were made by CFM International, jointly owned by General Electric and Safran Aircraft Engines of France. CFM said in a statement that the CFM56-7B has had "an outstanding safety and reliability record" since its debut in 1997, powering more than 6,700 aircraft worldwide.

Last year, the engine maker and the Federal Aviation Administration instructed airlines to make ultrasonic inspections of the fan blades of engines like those on the Southwest jet. The FAA said the move was prompted by a report of a fan blade failing and hurling debris. A Southwest spokeswoman said the engine that failed Tuesday was not covered by that directive, but the airline announced it would speed up ultrasonic inspections of fan blades of its CFM56-series engines anyway.

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John Goglia, a former NTSB member, said investigators will take the Southwest engine apart to understand what happened and will look at maintenance records for the engine.

"There's a ring around the engine that is meant to contain the engine pieces when this happens," Goglia said. "In this case it didn't. That's going to be a big focal point for the NTSB - why didn't (the ring) do its job?"

Goglia said the Boeing 737 is a safe plane but engine failures occur from time to time.

In 2016, a Southwest Boeing 737-700 blew an engine as it flew from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, and shrapnel tore a 5-by-16-inch hole just above the wing. The plane landed safely. The NTSB said a fan blade had broken off, apparently because of metal fatigue.

The last time a passenger died in an accident on a U.S. airliner was 2009 when 49 people on board and one on the ground were killed when a plane operated by Colgan Air for Continental Connection crashed on a house near Buffalo.

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