Disaster struck Southwest Airlines flight 1380 from New York to Dallas on Tuesday. An engine exploded 31,000 feet up, blowing a hole in the side of the 737, causing the cabin to depressurise.
Most of the 149 people onboard were unharmed or suffered only minor injuries from debris, but one woman, Jennifer Riordan from Albuquerque, died after she was partially sucked out of the hole. Other passengers pulled her back in, but she died of her injuries. It was the first fatality on a US airline flight over American soil in nine years.
A video shot by passenger Marty Martinez during the chaos is heavily distorted, but gets the idea across.
The pilots managed to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Upon landing, passenger Joe Marcus posted this image to Twitter, showing the extent of the damage from the blast.
But how did the pilots manage to get the plane to a point where they could safely land when they had a hole in the fuselage and a blown-out engine?
It all comes down to the evergreen combination of badassery and procedure.
The badassery was provided by pilot Tammie Joe Shults, one of the first ever female pilots in the US Navy (which she joined in 1985) and one of the first women to ever fly the F/A 18 fighter jet. After landing the plane she walked down the aisle making sure passengers were OK.
“She has nerves of steel” passenger Alfred Tumlinson told The Guardian. “That lady, I applaud her. I’m going to send her a Christmas card, I’m going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”
Then there’s procedure. Aviation is a world of checklists, of extremely clear running orders, double checks and triple checks. As soon as something goes wrong, it’s a case of running through the correct protocols.
In the case of a depressurised cabin, you need to get your plane to below 15,000 feet so the passengers can breathe. “They get the idea ‘we’ve lost an engine, and lost pressure—we need to get down,’” aviation consultant Douglas M Moss told Wired. “They’d say mayday three times, say their call sign, engine failure, descending to 10,000 on heading of XYZ.”
There is audio of Shults talking to air traffic control, and it’s remarkable how calm she sounds making statements like “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.”
There will be an investigation into what caused the explosion - currently it looks like “metal fatigue” around the engine could be to blame.
For now, though, we applaud Tammie Joe Shults, mourn Jennifer Riordan and be thankful that there were no more casualties.