NTSB blames 2018 fatal Southwest flight on cracked fan blade; 23 other planes had similar problem

Mike DeNardo
November 19, 2019 - 4:30 am
Southwest Flight 1380

NTSB

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UPDATED: 1:30 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The National Transportation Safety Board convened Tuesday and unanimously adopted a report on the findings, probable cause and recommendations of a mid-air engine failure last year that killed a passenger and forced an emergency landing in Philadelphia.  

According to preliminary findings from the NTSB, metal fatigue in a fan blade was a major factor that caused Southwest Flight 1380's blade to break off mid-flight, tearing through the left engine and sending shrapnel through a window.  

“On-scene examination of the fan blade dovetail, while it was still installed in the fan disc, showed metal fatigue,” said NTSB metallurgist Jean-Pierre Scarfo.

However, Scarfo said investigators have found nearly two dozen cracked fan blades that were taken out of service on Southwest planes.

“Including this and the Pensacola accidents, the total number of failed or cracked fan blades is 23,” he confirmed.

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The New York-to-Dallas flight was diverted to Philadelphia for an emergency landing in April 2018. The cabin depressurized and 43-year-old passenger Jennifer Riordan was partially sucked out of the broken window and pulled back inside the plane by flight attendants and passengers. She later died from her injuries.

When an air traffic control operator asked if the plane was on fire, Capt. Tammie Jo Shults responded, “No, it's not on fire, but part of it's missing.”

“They said there's a hole and someone went out,” she said in chilling audio captured on  liveatc.net.

Testimony at a hearing a year ago indicated a crack in the blade was present six years earlier, but it went undetected by visual inspections.

“We have a saying at the NTSB, that from tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety for us all,” added NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt on Tuesday. “The purpose of our discussions today is to learn from what happened so that we can keep it from happening again.”

The NTSB also called on Boeing to redesign the engine casings of older 737s.

Sumwalt said if a fan blade out, or FBO, event occurs, everything possible should be done to mitigate the consequences of the failure. 

“We recommend that engine and aircraft manufacturers develop more robust designs of the nacelle structures and its components that account for the critical FBO impact locations,” he said. “That translates to a better chance that damage to the aircraft and will be minimized during an FBO event, improving the safety of the flying public.”

The NTSB is expected to release a final report on the incident in three to four weeks.