FAA orders fan blade inspections after Southwest jet engine explosion that killed passenger

The announcement came nearly a year after the engine’s manufacturer recommended more inspections, and a month after European regulators ordered their airlines to do the work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 2:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 6:12am

US airline regulators have ordered inspections on engine fan blades like the one that snapped off a Southwest Airlines plane and led to the death of a passenger who was pulled partway out a window.

The announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) late on Wednesday came nearly a year after the engine’s manufacturer recommended the additional inspections, and a month after European regulators ordered their airlines to do the work.

Pressure for the FAA to act grew after an engine on a Southwest plane blew apart on Tuesday, showering the aircraft with shrapnel and shattering a window. 

A woman sitting next to the window was partially sucked out and died of her injuries. The plane, which was headed from New York to Dallas, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.

Passenger Andrew Needum, a firefighter in Texas, said on Thursday that he was helping his family and other passengers with their oxygen masks when he heard a commotion behind him. His wife nodded that it was fine for Needum to leave his family to assist the injured woman.

Rancher Tim McGinty, of Hillsboro, Texas, said he and Needum struggled to pull Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old Wells Fargo Bank executive, back into the plane. Needum and retired school nurse Peggy Phillips administered CPR for about 20 minutes, until the plane landed.

Needum declined to detail his rescue efforts out of respect for Riordan’s family.

“I feel for her family. I feel for her two kids, her husband, the community that they lived in,” an emotional Needum told reporters. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

Federal investigators are trying to determine how the window came out of the plane. Riordan, who was returning home from a business trip, was wearing her seat belt as she sat next to the window.

Philadelphia’s medical examiner said Riordan, the mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico, died from blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso.

Investigators said the blade that broke off and triggered the fatal accident was showing signs of metal fatigue – microscopic cracks that can splinter open under the kind of stress placed on jetliners and their engines.

The National Transportation Safety Board also blamed metal fatigue for an engine failure on a Southwest plane in Florida in 2016.

Ex-fighter pilot Tammie Jo Shults, who saved 148 people in Southwest jet’s emergency landing 

That led manufacturer CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and France’s Safran SA, to recommend last June that airlines conduct the inspections of fan blades on many Boeing 737s.

The FAA proposed making the recommendation mandatory in August but never issued a final decision.

On Wednesday, the FAA said it would issue a directive in the next two weeks to require ultrasonic inspections of fan blades on some CFM56-7B engines after they reach a certain number of take-offs and landings. Blades that fail inspection would need to be replaced.

It was not immediately clear how many planes would be affected. Last year, the FAA estimated that an order would cover 220 engines on US airlines. That number could be higher now because more engines have hit the number of flights triggering an inspection.

Southwest announced its own programme for similar inspections of its 700-plane fleet over the next month. United Airlines executives said Wednesday that they had begun inspecting some of their planes.

American Airlines has about 300 planes with that type of engine, and Delta Air Lines has about 185. It will not be clear until the FAA issues its rule how many will need inspections.

Tuesday’s emergency broke a string of eight straight years without a fatal accident involving a US airliner.

“Engine failures like this should not occur,” Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, said Wednesday.

Sumwalt expressed concern about such a destructive engine failure but said he would not yet draw broad conclusions about the safety of CFM56 engines or the entire fleet of Boeing 737s, the most popular airliner ever built.

Passenger dies after plane engine explodes above US

It is unknown whether the FAA’s original directive would have forced Southwest to quickly inspect the engine that blew up. CEO Gary Kelly said it had logged only 10,000 cycles since being overhauled.

Before Wednesday’s announcement, critics accused the FAA of inaction in the face of a threat to safety.

Robert Clifford, a lawyer who is suing American Airlines over another engine explosion that caused a fire that destroyed the plane, said the FAA should have required the inspections – even if it meant grounding Boeing 737s.

“There is something going on with these engines,” he said, “and the statistical likelihood of additional failures exists.”

William Waldock, a safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the scope of FAA action would depend on whether investigators find fatigue in other fan blades on the broken engine.

“The first thing they probably are going to do is pull every single one of those other blades off and X-ray them to see if they’ve got a similar type of failure waiting to happen,” he said.

Kelly, the Southwest CEO, said it was too soon to say whether Tuesday’s accident is related to any other engine failures.

Kelly said that the plane was inspected on Sunday and that nothing appeared out of order. A spokeswoman said it was a visual inspection and oil service of the engines. 

The NTSB’s Sumwalt said, however, that the kind of wear seen where the missing fan blade broke off would not have been visible just by looking at the engine.