How a cracked fan blade (probably) ended a decade of no US air travel fatalities

Photo of How a cracked fan blade (probably) ended a decade of no US air travel fatalities

Enlarge / Southwest's Boeing 737-700, tail number N772SW, was the aircraft for Southwest flight 1380. A failure in its left turbofan engine caused the death of one passenger and multiple other injuries. (credit: Aeroprints)

At 10:43am on April 17, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport bound for Love Field in Dallas with five crew and 143 passengers aboard. But just over 20 minutes into the flight, at an altitude of about 30,000 feet somewhere above Hershey, Pennsylvania, the left engine of the Boeing 737-700 exploded, blowing off its cowling. Debris shattered a passenger window, fatally injuring a woman seated next to it (who was nearly sucked out the breached window). With the cabin rapidly decompressing and an engine gone, the crew immediately began a descent, diverting toward Philadelphia for an emergency landing.

American commercial airline travel has been remarkably safe over the last decade: it has been more than 9 years since the last fatality on a US airline. Worldwide, 2017 was the safest year for air travel on record. Incidents like this one—a death caused by engine debris—are exceedingly rare; the last time engine debris killed an American commercial airline passenger was in 1996.

But it's not like this was a random act of God. What happened aboard Flight 1380 appears to have been "uncontained engine failure" in the front portion of the left engine—a failure of one of the engine's fan blades causing a spray of debris that rips through the walls of the engine (hence the "uncontained" part). This isn't the first time that a Southwest jet has experienced such a failure: another Southwest 737-700 using the same type of engine (a CFM56-7B) occurred in August of 2016, with no fatalities. And a United Airlines 777 flying from San Francisco to Hawaii suffered an engine failure caused by a broken fan blade last month, though the failure was contained and the aircraft landed safely.

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