Final verdict on Southwest Flight 1380 expected in November

Carlos E. Santa Maria /

It was a gruesome accident that shocked the nation. One year and half later since the fatal Southwest Airlines (LUV) flight 1380, investigators are set to present their findings to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a meeting to be held in November 2019. The board is expected to determine the probable cause of the April 2018 accident that led to the death of a passenger who was partially sucked out of the window.

Following a lengthy investigation, the NTSB announced on October 15, 2019, it will be holding a board meeting on November 19, 2019, to determine the probable cause of Southwest Airlines (LUV) flight 1380 engine failure and depressurization accident. At the meeting, which will be open to the public, investigators will present their report, including the probable cause, findings and safety recommendations, for review and approval by the board, leading up to the final accident report expected to be released by December 2019.

“Within a few hours of the completion of the meeting, the abstract of the final report is published, containing the probable cause, findings and recommendations,” the agency’s spokesperson Christopher O’Neil was quoted as saying by the Dallas Business Journal. “The full final report generally posts within a few weeks thereafter,” he added.

Southwest says it continues to participate in the ongoing NTSB-led investigation, together with other parties, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), GE Aviation, and Boeing among others. “We appreciate the work of the National Transportation Safety Board and each of the parties working to determine the probable cause of the accident,” Southwest said in a statement to AeroTime on October 16, 2019. “We all have the same goals: to share facts, learn what happened, and prevent this type of event from ever happening again.”

Southwest Flight 1380

On the morning of April 17, 2018, Southwest Boeing 737-700 (reg. N772SW), powered by two CFM56-7B turbofan engines, was en route from New York’s La Guardia Airport (LGA) to Dallas Love Field (DAL) in Texas, when it suffered an uncontained engine failure during climb at about 32,000 feet. The accident occurred when a fan blade of the left engine failed, separating from the engine hub. The resulting debris from the inlet and fan cowl pierced the 737’s wing and fuselage, shattering one of the plane’s windows and causing rapid cabin depressurization.

The flight crew was forced to make an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport (KPHL). There were 149 onboard the plane, including 144 passengers and five crew members. One passenger, later identified as Jennifer Riordan from Albuquerque, New Mexico, died of her injuries after she was partially sucked out of the aircraft when the window she was sitting next to blew out. Flight attendants aided by two passengers were able to pull the woman back inside the plane. It was the first fatality on board a Southwest flight and the first death in a U.S. commercial airline accident since 2009. Another eight passengers suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was substantially damaged as a result of the accident.

CFM International engines

During a press conference on April 17, 2018, the NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt stated that the engine failure on the Boeing 737-700 occurred approximately 20 minutes into the flight. The flight crew initially reported engine fire, but later clarified instead that the engine was missing parts and the aircraft was operating on a single engine. The engine cowling was later discovered about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the NTSB chairman added. During the preliminary examination on site, the agency’s investigative team discovered that one of the engine’s fan blades (Nr.13) was missing, having separated at the root. Further inspection found evidence of metal fatigue at the region where the blade separated, Sumwalt confirmed.

An NTSB investigator on scene examining damage to the CFM56 turbofan engine of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 (Image: National Transportation Safety Board)

Three days after the accident, on April 20, 2018, CFM International issued a Service Bulletin (SB 72-1033) for its CFM 56-7B-series engines recommending ultrasonic inspections (UI) of all fan blades on engines that have accumulated 20,000 engine cycles and subsequently at shorter intervals (not exceeding 3,000 engine cycles). Based on the bulletin, on the same day, the FAA and its European counterpart EASA issued emergency airworthiness directives requiring CFM56-7B engine fleet fan blade inspections for engines with 30,000 or greater cycles. The engine fan blades on the Southwest Boeing 737 had accumulated more than 32,000 engine cycles, according to the docket for the investigation.

In response to the accident, on April 18, 2019, the engine manufacturer issued a statement, confirming that the engine powering the Southwest Boeing 737-700 was a CFM56-7B, produced by CFM International, a joint-venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines. “CFM will support the NTSB and Southwest Airlines (LUV) in determining the cause of the accident and CFM and its parent companies, GE and Safran, will make every resource necessary available to ensure support,” the statement read.

According to the manufacturer: “The CFM56-7B engine powering this aircraft has compiled an outstanding safety and reliability record since entering revenue service in 1997 while powering more than 6,700 aircraft worldwide,” it was noted in the statement. “The engine has accumulated more than 350 million flight hours as one of the most reliable and popular jet engine in airline history”.

The CFM International engines remain at the center of the investigation. Prior to the scheduled board meeting on November 19, the NTSB will also hold an investigative hearing on November 14, focused on the CFM56-7 series, including the engine fan blade design and certification history.

Southwest 1380 pilot’s “Nerves of Steel”

The accident onboard Southwest flight 1380 gained national attention – not only because it took the life of one passenger, but also because of the flight crew – the plane’s captain Tammie Jo Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor – who were praised for safely landing the severely damaged aircraft.

On October 8, 2019, Shults’ published her memoir called “Nerves of Steel” giving a detailed account of the events that unfolded onboard the Boeing 737. Shults recounts the struggle to stabilize the aircraft after the engine blew out, tearing away sections of the plane and resulting in the aircraft dropping more than 18,000 feet in 18 minutes.

“I wasn’t sure how much more battering the aircraft could take before something else failed and we had a worse situation to deal with,” an excerpt from the book reads as quoted by The Dallas Morning News. “We obviously needed the big pieces to remain attached in order to land”.

An experienced pilot, Shults is known for being one of the first women to fly the F/A-18 Hornet during her service in the U.S. Navy. After eight years in the military, she also flew for the forest service in California before going on to work for Southwest Airlines (LUV) , flying Boeing 737s. According to Shults, she was not scheduled for the flight 1380 on April 17, 2018.

“So many things had gone wrong that day, but so many things had gone right, too,” she wrote. “The distance between the explosion and Philadelphia was just the right distance for us to have made it to Philly. We couldn’t have made an airport any farther away,” Shults is quoted by the Dallas News.

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