Federal investigators said they have found evidence of a missing fan blade in the engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 that made an emergency landing Tuesday, April 17 in Philadelphia.
The Southwest Boeing 737-700 was flying from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas when its left engine exploded, shattering a window and fatally injuring passenger Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old mother of two and Wells Fargo executive from Albuquerque.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that someone found a Southwest Airlines engine cowling, the outer covering of the engine, on the ground in Burnville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Mr. Sumwalt said that an NTSB aviation specialist “immediately focused on a missing fan blade” upon arriving at Philadelphia International Airport to start the investigation.
The number 13 fan blade had been separated from the assembly where it met the hub, Mr. Sumwalt said, adding that there is evidence of “metal fatigue” at the breaking point.
The pilot of the Southwest Airlines plane, Tammie Jo Shults, has been hailed as a hero for safely landing the crippled aircraft. Capt. Shults, one of the first female combat pilots in the U.S. and the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet, steadied the plane and brought the crisis under control when the engine exploded at 32,000 feet.
Passengers reported that Capt. Shults also walked through the airplane’s cabin to check on the passengers after the plane had landed.
Ms. Riordan was helped by fellow passengers, including a retired school nurse, and was taken to a Philadelphia hospital where she later died of her injuries. Seven other passengers received minor injuries.
According to CNN, another Southwest Airlines flight lost a fan blade in 2016 under circumstances that sound much like Tuesday’s incident.
In August 2016, Southwest Airlines Flight 3472, a Boeing 737-700 was flying from New Orleans to Orlando when one of its engines failed and forced the plane to make an emergency landing in Pensacola.
Debris from the engine’s inlet damaged the aircraft’s fuselage and wing, but the cabin wasn’t penetrated like it had been on Tuesday’s flight. NTSB investigators found one of the engine’s fan blades had separated from the fan disk or hub.
The NTSB’s findings in the 2016 incident were strikingly similar.”The fracture surface of the missing blade showed curving crack arrest lines consistent with fatigue crack growth,” the NTSB said in an announcement about the 2016 incident.
Separately, on Wednesday, Southwest Airlines Flight 577 from Nashville was forced to turn around and land shortly after takeoff after the aircraft struck a bird. The aircraft was taken out of service for inspection.