1 Dead in Southwest Emergency Landing


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonderandhome.com

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26 Responses

  1. I wonder when the last automobile fatality was. 3 seconds ago?Report

    • 37K in 2016 so whatever that math works out to. Even at that when you account fatalities against driven miles it is astonishingly low. These things make headlines, but in reality we live in one of the safest era’s there has ever been compared to history.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        The other day when I was out running errands around the Denver area I was remarking to myself just how well, on average, humans have done at learning to drive and cooperate on the roads. Especially when you consider the relative velocities and proximity involved. Other drivers seem to evade the truly stupid acts almost all of the time.

        Although I recall once reading that drivers in Kuala Lumpur were so bad that there was no place to get engine oil changed — the odds favored totaling a car through cumulative collision damage before the engine broke down from lack of oil changes. I have no idea if there was/is any truth in that.Report

        • Believable enough. Driving in Germany and continental Europe, where the standards of both learning to drive and keeping your vehicle in good working order are higher, was an absolute joy. Conversely there are whole websites and youtube channels to dashcam footage in foreign lands of accidents that just boggle the mind. Russia and eastern Europe come off as some kind of demolition derby. Aside from the south when it snows, or Vegas when it rains, the US is not that bad. The absolute craziest I have personally scene was Thailand, but even that was more sheer volume of kinetic energy moving en mass more than anything else.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I think it is the power of the dramatic and how it plays on the human imagination. You and everyone else is right about how cars are are more deadlier but when air accidents happen, they tend to be much more spectacular.

      Here the woman was pulled out because a window broke and the plane depressurized.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    The reason these incidents, and especially passenger deaths, are so rare is that they never should happen. The investigation will be long (minimum is 12-18 mths for fatality incident final report) but these types of things always, short of an act of God, involve human error at some point.

    I’m gonna push back a bit here, because everything I’ve heard so far suggest this was a partial rotor burst, and that type of failure is almost impossible to detect short of disassembling the engine and putting each fan/disk through an X-ray or MRI to look for failures. It’s not impossible that there was human error involved, but this is probably closer to an act of god.

    Also, as an aside, when the cabin crew tells you to keep your seat belt fastened while sitting, it’s not just turbulence they are worried about. I don’t know if the poor woman was just coming back from the bathroom or something when it happened, but if she had been just sitting there with her seat belt on, she would probably still be alive.

    PS I was a turbine tech in the Navy and a propulsion engineer at Boeing. This type of failure is well known and planned for.Report

    • Fair point, so let me ask you in your expertise here, is not the higher the hours you get on an engine/airframe the MX inspection gears towards checking as best they can such things? Unbalanced, wear and tear, ect. I know one of the offials yesterday threw out metal fatique but that seemed inappropriate to speculate on and does seem to fit so perhaps he was talking without thinking. Perhaps you could speak to what factors could go into that as this goes along. And agreed this is way early and will take quite some time. This on the surface sounds a lot like the SWA 737 that had a very similar incident in 2016 w/o injuries. I agree with you the lesson for the general public will knowing what to do in-cabin in an emergency. From my understanding the fatality was due to head injury so could support your position theory, we will see.

      And I appreciate your expertise and service. I started first 12 years of my career in Air Transportation so I appreciate your thoughts.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I was doing a bit more reading on it this morning, so let me add a few things:

        1) The engines in question are overhauled every 30K flights. From what I heard, this engine had ~40K flights and was overhauled on schedule.

        2) There is a method of ultrasound scanning that can be done with a handheld device to check for imminent fatigue failure, but like every non-destructive means of testing, it’s not 100% reliable. It’s just better than a visual inspection. The FAA was supposed to have a rule mandating that ultrasonic scanning be done regularly on all turbofan blades, but it’s been sitting on that rule for the past 18 months or so. We’ll have to wait for SWA to make the maintenance logs for that engine available before we’ll know more.

        3) Turbine rotors and fans are over-engineered quite a bit and manufactured to very tight tolerances. They are ideally pulled from service long before fatigue should be an issue. That said, metal fatigue is still notoriously tricky to identify and predict, and can be greatly accelerated by the simplest of things. It’s entirely possible that the failed blade hit some FOD on the tarmac, or got dinged just hard enough during maintenance. However, once a part has failed due to fatigue, the fact that it was fatigue is pretty obvious by visual inspection (and even more so under a microscope). So it’s not that out there for an experienced inspector to suggest it was fatigue.

        4) Rotor bursts are rare. There are, worldwide, maybe 3 or 4 a year (where the rotor just fails, rather than a burst rotor from something getting ingested into the engine). They are still designed against. The assumption is, during failure analysis, that the shrapnel of a burst rotor will travel with infinite energy, and thus it will slice right through the aircraft and wing. The engines and nacelles are thus built with hardened rings around each rotor whose job is not to stop the shrapnel, but to deflect it away from the fuselage and cause it to travel down the engine path. Better to shred the engine than the wing or the passengers.

        5) The thing that is causing aerospace engineers to scratch their heads isn’t the rotor burst, it’s the fact that the entire inlet cowling came apart. They aren’t supposed to do that. Chances are, the shrapnel that intruded into the passenger compartment was from the cowling coming apart violently, and not the failed blade. This is the second or third time an inlet cowling has failed to stay attached in recent memory. Boeing is going to have some hard questions to answer after this, since the cowling is their responsibility.Report

        • Pilot distinctly said no fire to ATC, does that to your mind and guessing from afar, lean you one way or the other? I would assume something like FOD intake would react differently than inlet cowling failing for some other reason. I only bring this up because I saw a FOD intake that immediately flared into a fire, fortunately it was on the ground and quickly contained between A/C systems and crew chief being swift with the fire bottle.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            A turbofan failing at Mach 0.8 at 30K feet is probably NOT going to catch fire unless the fuel tanks in the wing are leaking all over the place or the engine is still turning and burning. That kind of speed and the lack of oxygen means an open fire will have a hard time being sustained.

            You were in air trans, right? What was the procedure for restarting an engine that flamed out at cruise? You descend to 10K and restart, because you will never get enough O2 at 30K to relight the engine. The only reason the turbines can work at 30K is because the compressor is doing a massive amount of work to put enough O2 into the combustor to sustain the engine.Report

            • Makes sense perfect sense to me. I have peripheral knowledge compared to you, so wouldn’t state as expert or guess, I appreciate you laying it out well. Hopefully others do as I’ve done today and read up on it.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Also, FOD intake at 30K is unheard of, unless it was a bit of something from space, which is just statistically so out there…

            If it was FOD damage, it probably happened on an early flight, and it wasn’t something that was noticed (e.g. it was something hard but brittle that hit the blade and shattered into tiny pieces that harmlessly passed through the rest of the engine).Report

            • I would agree. FOD from space would make a good sci-fi concept though. In the case I mentioned it was as simple as some jackass leaving a leatherman on the inlet for God knows why reason. Did enough flight line FOD walks that to this day I look at the tires on my car when I get in out of habit.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Did enough flight line FOD walks…

                Same here. Hovercraft turbines tended to not suck in too much FOD thanks to the extensive seawater filtering systems, but the props and lift fans were not so discriminating. A small wrench getting sucked into the lift fans/bow thruster intakes would come out of a bow thruster traveling close to 200 MPH. And the main props at full pitch could blow a humvee onto it’s side with ease, so anything they sucked in is gonna be moving at a healthy clip.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    At the risk of sounding glib or callous, “never” feels like an obscenely high bar. One death in 9 years seems pretty close to “never” given we’re talking about millions of humans flying billions of miles thousands of feet in the air at hundreds of miles per hour.

    More people die doing just about everything. The most recent death in a daycare is more recent than the previous airline death.Report

    • You make fair point. I still carry the mindset of “no such thing as an accident” from my military days so never is probably too strong. But it is the goal for all safety professionals, who use various similar wordage to convey just that, “our goal is 0” and so forth.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        It seems reasonable — perhaps preferable or even ideal — that the internal goal is “Never” and that those charged with achieving this goal are well positioned to do so.

        As a member of the public, I’d hope that we wouldn’t adopt such a strident standard and then use it to pillory an industry or individuals whose success rate has 9s out to many, many places beyond the decimal point.


        I hope the public reaction is, “This was a tragic accident but also demonstrates the remarkable safety of the airline industry, including the people who design, build, maintain, service, and fly the airplanes,” while the insiders use it as a case study to see how, if in any way, this can be avoided.Report

        • There is a a line of thought to pursue here separate from the obvious tragedy of the lady who was killed, so in no way want to diminish that. But to your point-the airlines while getting the most important part mostly right, the safety, they have almost zero goodwill capitol built up with the public when things like this happen due to every lessening customer satisfaction. The customers are for the most part miserable, and rightly blame the airlines for that discomfort, so to their minds its a short leap to blaming them immediately when a tragedy strikes regardless of the statistical rarity of it. Going from overbooking and purposefully crowded conditions to “of course it was a matter of time till those cheapskates killed someone” is how that usually goes. And no amount of data will dissuade that emotion.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            That’s interesting because my mind didn’t even go there for a second. In fact, my first thought was, “Fuck… I was planning a flight on Southwest for this summer and the lady friend will almost surely refuse now.”

            I was glad to see how quickly folks seemed to single out and praise the pilot. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the flight attendants… some said the entire crew was aces while others said they were in a panic. Then again, I’m not sure how well positioned passengers in a crisis are to differentiate between, “They’re panicking!” and “They’re quickly moving through safety/emergency procedures!”

            Many airlines sucks for lots of reasons.

            No airlines suck for passenger safety.Report

  4. Avatar J_A says:

    May I wholeheartedly thank you all for this interesting and informative discussion.

    As a frequent flyer with millions of miles under my belt, and the child of a commercial flight casualty (*) (**), I can also vouch about the amazingly good safety rate of commercial airlines. As a guy whose day job involves a lot of very big turbines, turbine rotor failure is one of the things that do keep me up at night. So I have enjoyed both themes in this thread.

    (*) The wife of a colleague, who shares with me the same cause of death for our fathers, and I have pointed out that neither of us has ever met a third member or our club.

    (**) Bloody stupid human error. Had the pilot not died in the incident, the grieving families would have likely killed him for good.Report

    • I appreciate your thoughts and sharing that. You have a very unique perspective on this indeed and I am glad you are sharing it with us. I should have, but didn’t think to, look up the actual people behind just the statistics on how rare commercial flight deaths are. It is a good reminder those numbers, rare as they are, are very important to the people they represent.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Industrial turbines have their own set of headaches. I’ve never seen a main turbine in a plant come apart, but I’ve watched an APU do it, and that is a sound I will always remember (the rotor burst because the main bearing seized, everyone heard it happening, and the crew was running to shut it down, but at 60,000 rpm, it was all over before anyone even got close to a shutoff – luckily no one was hurt, and collateral damage was minimal, but we were doing FOD walkdowns of the tarmac for hours finding all the little pieces that scattered to hell and gone).Report