(Reuters) – The US Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it would order the inspection of about 220 engines after investigators reported an explosion on a Southwest Airlines flight.
The order, referred to as the Air Cleanliness Policy, would require ultrasonic testing of the blades of all CFM56-7B engines that received a specified number of launches within the next six months.
The Southwest 1380 CFM56 engine exploded over Pennsylvania Tuesday, about 20 minutes after the Dallas flight left LaGuardia New York's 149-passenger airport.
The blast sent shrapnel into the hull of the Boeing 737-700 and broke a window.
Bank director Jennifer Riordan, 43, was killed when she was dragged through a gaping hole next to her seat on Row 1
Philadelphia's medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was a blunt head, neck and torso injury, and died in an accident, spokesman Jim Garrow said.
Earlier Wednesday, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert Sumwalt, said at a press conference that the incident began when one of the engine's 24 fan blades jumped off its hub. Sumwalt said the investigators found that the blade suffered metal fatigue at the fracture site.
Sumwalt said he still could not say whether the incident, the first fatal aircraft accident in the United States since 2009, indicated a fleet-wide problem in the Boeing 737-700.
"We want to understand very well what the result of this problem is, and as I mentioned a few minutes ago, I am very concerned about this particular event," said Sumwalt at the Philadelphia airport news conference. "To be able to extrapolate this to the entire fleet, I'm not ready for it at the moment."
Southwest crews inspected similar aircraft engines and focused on the 400 to 600 oldest engines of the CFM56, made by a partnership of saffron from France and General Electric, for a person with knowledge of the situation. It was the second time that the engine in a Southwest jet had failed in the past two years, prompting airlines around the world to step up their inspections.
A National Transportation Safety Board inspection crew also scanned the Boeing 737-700 for signs that the engine was exploding.
Sumwalt said that the fan blade, after suffering from metal fatigue, where it hit the engine hub, suffered a second break approximately halfway. Parts of the aircraft were found in rural Pennsylvania by investigators who tracked them on the radar. Metal fatigue would not have been observable from the outside, Sumwalt said.
Although the FAA said the directive would apply to approximately 220 engines, airlines said that because fan blades could have been repaired and relocated, it would affect a much larger number.
The jet drove at 190 miles per hour, making an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport, according to Sumwalt, much faster than the typical 155-mile-per-hour touchdown.
Passengers described scenes of panic when a piece of shrapnel smashed an aircraft window off the engine and nearly sucked Riordan.
"The window was broken and the vacuum had partially pulled it off the plane," said Peggy Phillips, a nurse who was on the plane, to WFAA TV in Dallas. "Two wonderful men … they managed to get them back on the plane, and we laid them down and we started the cardiopulmonary resuscitation."
Riordan was Wells Fargo banker and noted volunteer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the company said.
"MY LAST FEW MOMENTS"
Videos posted on social media showed passengers grabbing for oxygen masks and shrieking as the plane was piloted by 56-year-old Tammie Jo Shults descent to Philadelphia.
"All I could think of at the time was that I had to communicate with my loved ones," passenger Marty Martinez told ABC "Good Morning America" on Wednesday. During the incident, he logged into the Wi-Fi network to send messages to his family.
"I thought these are my last moments on Earth and I want people to know what happened," said Martinez, who posted images of passengers in oxygen masks on Facebook as the plane made a bumpy descent to Philadelphia made.
Southwest Airlines experienced an unrelated security incident early Wednesday when a Phoenix-based flight landed at Nashville Airport shortly after takeoff due to a bird strike.
The airline has expected to complete the inspection of the engines it plans to complete in about 30 days.
The GE Saffron partnership that built the engine said it would send about 40 technicians to help with the Southwest inspections. Parts of the engine including its bonnet – the smooth metal exterior that covers its interior work – were found about 60 miles (97 km) from Philadelphia Airport, Sumwalt said. The examination could take 12 to 15 months.
In August 2016, a southwest flight made a safe emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida, after a fan blade of the same engine type was separated and debris tore a hole over the left wing. This incident prompted the United States Federal Aviation Administration last year to propose that similar blades be subjected to ultrasonic testing and replaced if they fail.
Alwyn Scott, Jonathan Allen and Alana Wise reporting in New York, David Shepardson in Washington, Scott Malone in Boston, Arunima Banerjee in Bengaluru and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Arrangement by Susan Thomas and Leslie Adler