Maybe we should take the train


Wow, the pilot on Southwest 1380 was remarkably professional and effective in dealing with an in-flight emergency.

Watch the first part of the video for the praise for Tammy Jo Shults, but then get horrified at the end, when it mentions that there was a similar incident in 2016, when an engine fan blade snapped. At that time, the engine manufacturers recommended ultrasound inspection of all turbine fans to spot invisible cracks in the blades.

Southwest Airlines ‘resisted’. The excuse in the video? “The airline business is a profit-making business.” Yeah, capitalism.

Apparently, other airlines also resisted. I’d like to know who, because we’re about to book some flights to visit family, and I’d rather not experience exploding engines or getting sucked out through a window. Southwest is off the list.

Comments

  1. isochron says

    It is extraordinary to hear the level of calm that is in the voices of pilots in situations like this. No hint of panic, absolute matter-of-fact attention to detail, and outstanding professionalism. That’s how you maximise the chances of a safe landing. It never fails to impress me.

  2. blgmnts says

    VASAviation on Youtube has a load of aviation audio/visualisation for the enthusiast; including one of Southwest 1380 more comprehensive than that short snippet from PBS above.

  3. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    “Safety always costs money.” On NPR this morning there was a story about how the Trump administration wants to relax the regulations on offshore oil drilling enacted after Deepshore Horizon, with the justification that no business wants something like that to happen.

    Can’t imagine what could go wrong….

  4. says

    It is far more dangerous to ride in a motor vehicle than it is to ride in a commercial aircraft. If you’re worried about your safety, best not drive to the airport.

  5. blgmnts says

    p.s.: If you think the pilot is calm in the above video, listen to her just after the engine broke apart while in an emergency descent. That is ‘calm’.

  6. unregardless says

    Before you book those Amtrak tickets you may want to consider you’re 6 times more likely to die on a train. And why is that Positive Train Control deadline continues to be pushed back? But at least Amtrak depends on over a billion dollars of subsidies per year rather than villainously covering their operating expenses.

  7. says

    We’re not seriously considering taking a train. For one thing, rail infrastructure is so grossly degraded in this country that there is no train service in my town; for another, it would probably cost significantly more to take the train than to fly, and I’m about to go on half-pay for my sabbatical year. They don’t pay me that much to begin with, and it’s going to get remarkably tight for a while.

  8. blgmnts says

    p.p.s.: Mentour Pilot on Youtube (a 737 pilot himself) talks about it from the crew’s POV. The crew actually had to deal with 2 emergencys at once: Engine failure and depressurization.

  9. says

    I’d rather not experience exploding engines

    Yeah? Well, I’m two blocks from Chicago Midway right now, which Southwest flies through. I’m on high alert 24/7 right now! (OK, I’m not being serious, but the thought of being in an area that could get hit with engine debris has been crossing my mind.)

  10. blf says

    it would probably cost significantly more to take the train than to fly

    I cannot speak to now, but last century when I lived in the States, I could save (my company) money by booking the train: It was (often) cheaper, and on the rare(-ish) occasion it wasn’t, the ticket price differential was insignificant. Where the costs did add up was extra meals, tips, and so on on the longer journeys; and, in the opinion of one particular arsehole of a VP, me traveling rather then being in the lab / office or at the conference / customer.

    One memorial occasion was when that VP complained to my boss my recent train trip had cost more than flying. I promptly produced a receipt for the trip, and the pre-trip quote(s?) for flying, pointing out the train was cheaper. I then asked for the difference to be paid to me, since the VP was Ok with the higher price… He was not amused, but my boss laughed and laughed.

  11. microraptor says

    PZ, did you see the expose that 60 Minutes did on Allegent Airlines’s safety record last Sunday?

  12. archangelospumoni says

    Radio traffic between “center” (controls all traffic between airports), tower, ground, EMT, and the airplane plus a map layout of the area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnSizWZVyD4
    Retired airplane inspector/pilot here:
    3 emergencies: depressurization, pax injury (-ies), and engine loss. Cabin depressurization is detected by a dedicated sensor and the default airplane setting is crew “warning” (highest level of 3 possible), automatic mask deployment with emergency P.A. announcement (loudly) ordering pax to don masks. The cockpit crew can deploy the masks via a covered switch but in a sudden depressurization the airplane is usually ahead of the cockpit crew. The typical depressurization procedure to descend quickly to 10,000′ from FL300 (30,000′), where there is enough oxygen in the air to support us.
    Engine: there would be no indication telling the crew precisely what happened to the blade or engine itself, but all sorts of engine indication instrumentation would show thrust loss, electrical generator loss, conditioned air loss, etc. Plenty of “advisory” (white) and “caution” (yellow) and “warning” (red) indications.
    Pilots practice engine out procedures all the time and the autopilot instantly starts adjusting the other engine and the flight controls. “Aviate, navigate, communicate.” This is precisely what the pilot did and the ground folks did their jobs supporting the stricken airplane.
    Technically there are multiple emergencies but think of it as about 1.5. Depressurization takes way less flight crew work than engine loss and injury.
    And bet your 401(k) that every syllable from every radio participant will be examined in great detail and used for training.

  13. Muz says

    I’ve been on the occasional binge watch of Air Crash Investigation. That really changes your perspective on things. The guys who found a crack and welded a plate over it, then a couple of flights later the whole tail falls off. Or the (catastrophic) problem with the engine on a couple of flights being due to how they were a teensy bit rough taking it off and putting it back on the aircraft when they tested it, nothing wrong with the engine itself. All the times the pilot didn’t take a warning light seriously enough and so forth.

    My last trip, we were delayed boarding for home while they sorted some safety issue with the plane. This is a cheap airline that flies well worn old things. We board late already, people grumbling a bit and after profuse apologies start taxiing to the runway. Then the pilot stops and turn us around. Says he’s sorry but we’re going to have to change aircraft. Off we all get and wait while they swap luggage and crews etc (lucky there was another place there so this didn’t take too long).
    At other times I might have been a bit put out by this turn of events. It probably caused all sorts of inconvenience to the passengers, the airline, the airports etc too. Well I don’t mind at all now! Much prefer some delays over a plane that loses some key piece high in the air. Good job cautious pilot.

  14. says

    “Southwest Airlines ‘resisted’. The excuse in the video? “The airline business is a profit-making business.” Yeah, capitalism.”

    This is horrible.

    Airplanes are built to fail, not, in this rare case, because of greed but because a plane not built to fail would be to heavy to lift of. Because of this, every plane has maintenance cycles that allow to catch any fault before it becomes dangerous to the plane.
    And sometimes unforeseen problems develop, like in this case. Which get published so everyone using these planes can react.

    Taking anything of this less then deadly serious should get you shut down immediately.

  15. numerobis says

    blgmnts: Indeed. She sounds stressed right away but doing fine. Then she reports a passenger went out the window and her voice pretty much cracks. She’s not an emotionless vulcan.

    Despite that, she lands the damn plane and doesn’t accidentally fly into any buildings on the way.

  16. says

    Former aircraft maintenance squadron commander and mishap* investigation board member (including one involving an engine disintegrating in flight due to metal incompatibility and fatigue):

    I was tremendously amused that the CEO of Southwest came on the radio the afternoon of the mishap and said that the last time the aircraft had been “inspected” was two days prior to the mishap. That’s… disturbingly lax, or else a complete misuse of the terms. The aircraft is “inspected” as part of every preflight walkaround, and I can GUARANTEE that no military-experienced pilot would neglect the walkaround. There were “inspections” done at every refueling. There were “inspections” done at every engine full-stop. And so on. I think what he meant to say was “the last time the aircraft was taken out of service for a scheduled, all-basic-systems inspection by system specialists was 15 April, but the aircraft was constantly checked between flights. Neither the scheduled inspection nor any of the between-flights inspections revealed any safety-related defects.”** Even though it’s accurate, that’s not a great soundbite.

    My immediate reaction on hearing “uncontained engine failure in flight” was “metal fatigue of fan blades or attachments”… because that’s generally what causes an uncontained engine failure in flight. Birdstrikes (more dangerous and far more common) send the force through on a different vector that modern engine designs can handle more readily, and other types of catastrophic in-flight shutdown also vector the failure force parallel to the aircraft. (All bets are off with deliberate sabotage and combat damage, of course. But given the current “blame terrorists for everything” environment, that sort of thing would have been the first words out of everyone’s mouths if even a possibility.)

    * It’s not an “accident” — implying that there was no traceable fault, but instead something akin to an “act of nonexistant deity” — until AFTER the MIB has met, considered all of the evidence, simulated multiple “last chance to avoid” scenarios, and determined that there was indeed no fault to be assigned. Until then, it’s a “mishap.”

    ** How do I know this? Because if they had, the NTSB would already have said so. It would have said so on the day of the mishap, because it’d be reflected in the aircraft forms (and given the proportion of military-experienced maintenance personnel at Southwest, I think it extremely unlikely that a red-X condition would have been pencil-whipped… and it would have had to get past at least two workers due to the way that heavies are inspected coming out of scheduled maintenance).

  17. DonDueed says

    Kudos also to the Boeing designers and builders, whose plane held together and landed safely on one engine. This case wasn’t as extreme as that Hawaiian Air jet that lost about 1/3 of the cabin roof, but still…
    Muz, my favorite air (non)disaster was the case where a fuel leak and cross-connected fuel lines caused a plane to run out of gas halfway across the Atlantic. The pilots managed to glide it to a safe landing in the Azores.

  18. DonDueed says

    Correction: the fuselage failure was Aloha Airlines 243, not Hawaiian Air.
    FYI, the Azores landing was Air Transat Flight 236 in 2001.

  19. gijoel says

    We need to start jailing executives who willfully endanger people’s lives for profits.

  20. magistramarla says

    I will still continue to be a faithful customer of Southwest Airlines. It is the only US airline that treats disabled passengers well. (Japan Airlines does do better, though. That’s another story.) On Southwest, I’m always invited to board the plane early, and I’m usually treated quite well. I’ve traveled with a 110 lb. German Shepherd service dog, and Southwest has been very welcoming of him. A staff member was even sent to take him to the doggy relief station for me once when we were between flights.
    My husband and I will soon be making a trip on United for me to participate in a clinical trial. We had no choice on that flight, or I would have chosen Southwest. I recently received a “reminder” from United that our cheap flight does not give me any special privileges as a disabled person. We are not guaranteed seating next to each other. I will not have an option to choose my seat at all, so I won’t be able to sit where I have a bit of extra room for stretching my painful legs, as I do on Southwest. We must pay for checked bags (not on Southwest). My purse (actually a fanny pack) counts as a carry-on, so I can’t bring my backpack, or I must check it.
    The last time that I flew on United, the entire crew was pissed at me that I was unable to walk down steps from the plane and forced them to wait while a lift was brought for me. I do not anticipate a very pleasant trip this time, either!
    Any mode of travel is a risk. I’ll still risk it on Southwest Airlines.

  21. chrislawson says

    That commentator in the interview is obviously intelligent and knowledgeable, so it’s sad to see that he’s so swallowed so much BS.

    1. Two incidents of military-trained pilots doing well in emergencies is not evidence that civilian training is inadequate. One of the most famous emergency landings ever—the Airbus that was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Baghdad in 2003—was by Belgian volunteer civilian pilot Éric Gennotte. It’s worth reading the story of how he landed the plane—it’s pretty extraordinary.

    2. He has no way of knowing that the US military has the best pilot training in the world. That’s just jingoism.

    3. While he’s right that the FAA should have enforced testing more rigorously after the 2016 event, SouthWest is still the major culprit here — they refused to pay for testing despite the manufacturer’s recommendation after one of their own planes’ engines exploded without warning. The idea that being a profit-making entity absolves a company of all responsibility beyond what is forced upon them by regulatory authorities is a recipe for disaster…as amply demonstrated here. Any decent ethical company would have done the testing even if the FAA did not exist.

  22. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Regarding the FAA’s recommendations after the 2016 incident: I don’t see any followup from the NTSB on their website at all. Either it’s not been published (it’s almost always made publicly available), or it’s not considered complete enough yet. Anyone with a good link?

  23. waydude says

    Airline pilot here. First, civilian training is quite adequate, it depends more on the person than just the training received, and most pilots are gonna do just fine and do every day when you don’t die in a plane as we encounter all sorts of shit you have no idea are happening. Icing, windshear, crosswinds, traffic, birds, etc… We train for single engine and honestly it’s not too hard. You stay calm, and run the procedure. If you can do that, you’re fine, if you get sidetracked or too focused on one thing then you have trouble.
    As far as the inspections go, engine failures are very rare, we inspect the engine and fan blades on every flight, to do these deep micro fracture inspections are expensive and time consuming making things more expensive. That doesn’t mean we cheap out, but it does mean things are weighted against possibilities. We do thousands of flights a day in this country and this is a very rare event.
    Also, the most disturbing thing here is not the failure of the fan blades, that can happen even with all the inspections in the world, it’s the failure of the engine nacelle to contain it. That cowl around the front directs and channels air into the engine inlet, but it also is supposed to contain this type of event. That will be have to be investigated. If that had been contained, this would have been a scary but uneventful incident. And while I’m at it, wait for the full NTSB report before going off too much about this.
    Like every accident, there are a chain of events leading up to the incident, this is a tragedy, but we can be thankful it wasn’t worse. The history of the airline industry is about figuring out this stuff and making changes to ensure it won’t happen again. Her death will not be in vain.

  24. chrislawson says

    waydude@23–

    I agree that we can’t assess the full picture until the investigatory report is completed. But whatever the outcome of the investigation, it appears that (1) SouthWest did not undertake the testing recommended by the manufacturers, and (2) SouthWest and other airlines resisted the FAA’s efforts to implement this testing, so (3) this raises doubts about commitment to safety within the industry.

    Also worth pointing out: NTSB has not released its final report on the 2016 event as far as I can tell from searching their online database. I don’t know the argument the airlines are using to delay implementing these new safety protocols, but if they say they’re waiting for the final report, I would call that extreme recklessness given the findings of the preliminary report (September 2016) and the time it’s taking for the final report (21 months and counting). The safe approach would be to implement the testing until such time as the NTSB report shows otherwise.

  25. waydude says

    @chrislawsom

    It’s a good point, but basically the answer is it’s time consuming and expensive and it wouldn’t appreciatively improve safety. You could xray the whole plane all the time, but eventually things just fail. This is the price we pay for travel in such an unforgiving environment. We make it as safe as possible within reason, and all pilots have a very high threshold fro safety that results in cancelled, or delayed, flights that nobody is happy about.
    As for the manufacturers, that is basically their CYA. We follow several recommendations from the manufacturers, because they make sense and don’t impact usability too much, usually just puts more work on the pilots, but maintenance takes time, and time means lots of paperwork that is extremely detailed, and time is always money. And that time is weighed against how actually useful some procedure would be. The manufacturers make lots of recommends because it doesn’t cost them anything. “hey just xray everything before every flight and check for microfractures”.
    I’m not letting Southwest off the hook here, if the investigation turns out that a routine inspection could have prevented this, they have a lot to answer for. But we still need to remember that airplane incidents are very flashy on the news, they connect to a primal fear in all of us. We won’t and shouldn’t tolerate a flying death, but on the other hand we pretty much turn a blind eye to the 30-40,000 auto deaths every year. And the gun deaths. And violence against women, and gays, and minorities. The difference is in flying, we will do something about it.

  26. blf says

    NTSB has not released its final report on the 2016 event as far as I can tell from searching their online database.

    Related, from Aviation agencies order engine checks after Southwest blast:

    US and European regulators order inspections within 20 days
    […]
    Following [the 2016] problem the European agency gave airlines nine months to check engines, while US regulators drafted an order giving airlines up to 18 months to carry out checks, but it had not finalised the measure by the time of Tuesday’s damage. […]

    Airlines must now make ultrasonic inspections of fan blades that have been used in more than 30,000 cycles, or have been in service for about 20 years, within the next 20 days. A cycle includes one take-off and landing. […] The engine that blew apart on Tuesday had done 40,000 cycles […]

    That makes it sound like the FAA hasn’t yet issued any order / directive resulting from the 2016 incident (albeit apparently the EASA has (I don’t know when or precisely what)).

    The article does not discuss the nacelle’s failure. (Did the nacelle also fail in the 2016 incident? The above-cited article only cryptically says “a fan blade separated from the same type of engine and debris ripped a hole above the left wing.”)

  27. Ivan says

    I’m not sure this is the right place for capitalism-bashing.
    The deceased woman was the FIRST victim of any passenger accident with a US plane since 2009. 9 years without losing a person, with an extremely high number of plane flights (since hardly anybody rides trains in the US)… that can’t be attributed to a coincidence.
    So the manufacturer recommended to x-ray all the engines and the naughty capitalists declined. Surely it’s easy to assign blame in hindsight, but if this was believed to be a rare defect, the technicians’ time was rather better spent doing some other job, preventing other, more likely, failures.

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