Report Details Chaotic Scene During Fiery American Airlines Evacuation

Jul 10, 2017

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On October 28 last year, American Airlines flight 383 was departing Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) for Miami (MIA) when it suffered what’s known as an uncontained engine failure, caused by a weakness in the high-pressure turbine disk of the General Electric CF6 engine on the right side of the plane. The engine basically exploded and sent debris flying, piercing the plane’s wing, resulting in a catastrophic fuel fire which severely damaged the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary findings from the incident a few days ago. The report is troublesome, describing passengers ignoring instructions from flight attendants, and passengers being knocked down by the hot exhaust from a jet engine that was left running briefly during the evacuation.

Within the report, at least three flight attendants testified that they encountered passengers who refused to leave their personal belongings behind on the plane as instructed. They ended up having to allow those passengers to evacuate with their stuff, rather than delaying the process and jeopardizing lives. Thankfully, only minor injuries occurred during the evacuation.

Image courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Image courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

A piece of the engine went through the wing when the turbine disk failed. That piece went over the plane, and landed inside a UPS warehouse (Disk fragment A), about a quarter-mile away.

In hindsight, it’s fortunate the incident occurred while the plane was still on the runway. Had it happened a few seconds later with the plane in the air, the number of casualties/injuries would surely have been significantly higher, considering the damage to the wing. Much of the resulting fire happened due to spilled fuel from the pierced wing. The heat was so intense that the outer portion of the wing melted and fell limp to the ground.

The pilots brought the plane to a stop on the runway, about 30 seconds after the engine failure. But for unknown reasons, they did not immediately shut off the remaining functioning engine. The NTSB report says passengers were attempting to evacuate, but the flight attendants aboard the plane had to hold them back, because of the running engine. On one side, the engine and ground were on fire, but the other side was equally dangerous due to the running engine.

Evacuation slides were deployed on the non-fiery side of the plane, but the hot exhaust from the running engine blew the aft slides backward, delaying the evacuation even more. Once the cabin began filling with smoke, flight attendants had no choice but to let passengers egress, bags and all. Some passengers reported being knocked down and/or burned by the engine exhaust. However, those injuries pale in comparison to what could have happened.

Thankfully, everyone aboard flight 383 survived in spite of the oddities of the evacuation and the passengers who insisted on evacuating with their own belongings. It would be great if airlines could lock down the overhead bins during evacuation. At least one manufacturer (Zodiac Aerospace) is working on that function, but we haven’t seen this capability implemented yet.

Featured image by @CaptPuneetNagi on Twitter.

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