Fan Blades a Focus in Fatal Southwest Airlines Incident

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. // Photo by NTSB via AP, Newscred

One woman was killed Tuesday when an engine on a Southwest Airlines flight apparently broke apart, shattering a window and partially sucking her out of the aircraft. While the investigation is still preliminary, officials are focusing on an engine blade that could have broken off due to metal fatigue. 

In a written statement Southwest Airlines confirmed that Flight 1380 from New York - LaGuardia to Dallas Love Field when it suffered issues with the number one engine that forced it to make an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. The flight was operated by a Boeing 737-700, which had 144 customers and five crew onboard.

“We’re giving the National Transportation Safety Board our full attention, cooperation and support as they go about the business of investigating this engine failure,” Southwest Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in a statement posted to Youtube, adding that the airline was in the “earliest stages of gathering information.”

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According to several passengers interviewed by CNN, the incident took place about 20 minutes into the flight, when something in the engine broke apart midair and burst through the window, partially sucking a woman out of the plane. As the plane quickly descended, going from 31,684 feet to 10,000 feet in just over five minutes, passengers struggled to pull the woman back inside, which took several minutes. A nurse onboard the flight volunteered to perform CPR, which continued until the plane landed and was met by medics. The woman was later pronounced dead.

According to CBS News, this was the first death resulting from an in-flight accident on a U.S. airliner since 2009, when the crash of a Continental Express plane near Buffalo, New York, killed 49 people onboard and one person on the ground. Seven other people were injured in the Southwest incident. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt told Reuters that a preliminary investigation found that a fan blade in the engine was missing and had apparently broken off. There was metal fatigue at the point where the fan blade would normally be attached. Southwest has promised to accelerate its existing engine inspection program and to conduct ultrasonic inspections of fan blades on similar engines on its 737 aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration had proposed a similar measure last year in response to an August 2016 incident in which a Southwest flight made a safe emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida, after a fan blade separated from the same engine type and debris punched a hole above the aircraft’s left wing. 

The full NTSB investigation could take between 12 and 15 months. 

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