A fatal accident aboard a recent Southwest Airlines flight is forcing the federal government and manufacturers to reconsider inspection guidelines.
Earlier in the week, New Mexico businesswoman and philanthropist Jennifer Riordan boarded an ordinary flight from LaGuardia International to Albuquerque. Less than twenty minutes in, an engine suddenly malfunctioned, exploding in midair. Debris blasted through a wing-side window, injuring Riordan.
Sucked partway outside the window and beyond the fuselage, Riordan’s fellow passengers had to pull her head and torso back inside the aircraft.
The pilots responded to the explosion quickly, contacting area airports and forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
But not long after the flight touched down and Riordan was transported to an emergency room, the 43-year old and mother of two passed away.
Disturbingly, writes the New York Times, the same aircraft involved in the incident had recently been inspected. A routine evaluation of the engine at fault had shown no reason for concern on Tuesday. Nobody suspected a potential problem when the Boeing 737-700 lifted off from LaGuardia earlier in the week.
For Southwest, the tragedy marks their first-ever passenger fatality in the company’s 51 years of operation. In response, the airline announced that it’d launch a fleetwide inspection of their 737 engines and fan blades. The Times reports that federal regulators may take action based on Southwest’s preliminary findings.
Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Robert L. Sumwalt said the blade had broken in two places – ‘where the blade attaches to the main hub and higher up, approximately at the midpoint of the blade.’
Sumwalt says the crack “was on the interior of the fan blade,” and wouldn’t have likely been “detectable from looking from the outside.”
Visual inspections, by and large, have been a mainstay of routine engine safety evaluations. A similar mishap in 2016 had already put regulators on edge – another Southwest Boeing saw an engine fan separate midflight, ripping a hole in the aircraft’s fuselage. No passengers were injured, but the alarming and unforeseen event forced the NTSB to investigate.
Shortly thereafter, CFM International proposed airlines occasionally conduct ultrasound tests on fan blades. But companies and fleet owners aren’t mandated by law to follow manufacturer recommendations. That poses a problem, because, as the Times mentions, flaws in airplane hardware and builds can be difficult to detect – minute discrepancies which, if unnoticed, can turn disastrous in a matter of seconds.
“The forces in the engine are extraordinary,” said 737 pilot John Gadzinski, speaking to the New York Times. “Those small cracks that you may only see with an electron microscope will go from small to catastrophic failure in an instant.”
Analysts interviewed by the Times urged consumers not to panic. Even if the root cause of the latest incident is the same as the 2016 fan failure, the problem could likely be amended by an uptick in engine inspections.
Speaking of the 737 in particular, Southwest Chief Executive Gary C. Kelly said, “The airplane, in my opinion, is proven.
“It’s very reliable. It has the greatest success of any other aircraft type.”