The terrifying story of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 near-crash is still fresh in flyers’ minds, but a commercial jet losing an engine isn’t usually something to be afraid of. Not only does it rarely happen, but when it does, pilots and planes are ready to handle it. Here’s what you need to know about these types of incidents, and why Flight 1380 was more severe.
Engine Loss Rarely Happens
If there’s one thing you take away from this, know that it’s pretty rare for a commercial airliner to lose an engine. The 18-year-old Boeing 737-7H4 used for Flight 1380 was equipped with two CFM56-7B turbofans, one of the most popular jet engines in the world. It’s used on more than 6,700 planes worldwide, so if you’ve flown at all, there’s a good chance you’ve flown with these workhorses. They’re also considered to be some of the most reliable engines ever made, with an in-flight shutdown rate of only one incident per 333,333 hours of use.
Mechanical failure, like losing an engine, only accounts for about 17 per cent of all fatal accidents involving aircraft. And there are only about 25 incidents every year that involve a jet engine failing either in flight or on the ground – which breaks down to less than one incident for every one million flights worldwide. Engine failure can be caused by mechanical problems or bad fuel, but more often than not these incidents are caused by freak accidents that can’t be avoided, like birds flying into the turbines.
Pilots Are Trained to Fly With Just One or No Engines
While engine loss is exceptionally rare, it’s also not an overwhelming emergency for most commercial pilots. They have been thoroughly trained for hours and hours on how to handle a lost engine for that particular aircraft. When these events do occur, the passengers get a bit of a scare, but they rarely lead to any further complications or fatalities. In fact, engine loss is so textbook for commercial pilots they might not even do anything about it. Pilots may divert the aircraft and make an unscheduled or emergency landing – but not always. If it makes more sense for the flight to carry on to their destination with one engine, they will.
Even if all the engines go out, the plane can still glide and coast to a safe landing – also known as a “deadstick landing” – thanks to the plane’s momentum and good ol’ gravity. Or, if the engines go out during takeoff, like they did when a flock of geese struck US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, the pilot can “ditch” and make an emergency water landing if the airport is near a body of water.
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Airliners Are Designed to Fly Safely With Only One Engine
Commercial aeroplanes are designed with a number of redundant safety features, including the ability to fly long distances with only one engine. Losing an engine causes the plane to lose some of its thrusting power, but that only affects a few things:
- The plane won’t be able to maintain maximum altitude, so it flies at a lower one.
- The remaining engine gets worked a little harder.
- The plane becomes less fuel-efficient, thus reducing range.
Basically, losing an engine means the plane can’t fly as far as it could with all of its engines. Makes sense, right? Outside of that loss of range, however, planes are more than capable of flying safely without a huge loss in capabilities.
In fact, before an airliner is even allowed to fly long distances, or to fly over uninhabited areas like oceans and the Arctic, it has to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for Extended Range Twin Operations (ETOPS). A huge part of this certification involves the plane’s ability to fly with one engine. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is certified for ETOPS-330, which means it can continue to fly for 330 minutes (or five and a half hours) with only one functioning engine.
What Made Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 Different
If engine loss isn’t such a big deal, why was it so bad for Southwest Airlines Flight 1380? Two words: punctured fuselage. The main cabin you sit in is pressurised after take off – so you can be comfortable and, you know, breathe and stuff – but if the fuselage gets ruptured mid-flight it can cause some serious problems. Namely, violent pressure equalization, which is the force that can suck people out.
Engine failure can be anything from an engine losing power to an engine exploding in a ball of fire. Violent events like the latter are worse. About 20 minutes into Flight 1380, one of the left engine’s 24 titanium alloy fan blades snapped off, essentially causing the engine to be totally obliterated. Normally, the shrapnel from that type of explosive event blows back through the engine, but this event somehow sent shrapnel toward one of the windows in the plane’s fuselage, breaking it. At that point, the pilots had two problems that combined to make one major problem. Not only was an engine out, but the cabin was rapidly losing air pressure – which killed one of the passengers on board. Because of that combination of unfortunate circumstances, the flight crew had to act fast and was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
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Flying accidents like engine loss do happen, but these events are rare. And even when they do occur, they’re not likely to turn into anything serious. What happened on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 was a tragic, horrifying ordeal, but don’t let one fluke scare you out of flying. It’s still the safest mode of transportation, without a doubt.