‘We’re Coming Down’: Southwest Crew Stayed Calm During Scary Descent

(Bloomberg) -- The pilots aboard Southwest Airlines Co. Flight 1380 were all business as they fought to control the jetliner after one of its two engines exploded more than six miles above Pennsylvania, shattering a window and suddenly decompressing the cabin.

Then came the voice of a flight attendant over the intercom.

“We got (inaudible) a window open and somebody -- is out the window,” flight attendant Seanique Mallory reported to the cockpit crew.

“Okay, we wer’, we’re coming down,” replied copilot Darren Ellisor, as the pilots raced to get the plane to a lower altitude to reduce the effects of the rapid decompression. “Is everyone else in their seats strapped in?”

“Yeah, everyone still in their seats,” Mallory said. “We have people, have been helpin’ her get in. I don’t know what her condition is but the window is completely out.”

The Boeing Co. 737-700 carrying 144 passengers and five crew members endured a harrowing descent as noise roared through the cabin, winds buffeted the damaged engine and wing, and fellow passengers struggled to hold onto a 43-year-old woman partially sucked through the broken window.

Captain Tammy Jo Shults and Ellisor fought to control the damaged plane but managed an emergency landing in Philadelphia about 17 minutes after the engine blew.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday opened a hearing into the April 17 accident, which caused the first fatality on a U.S. passenger airline since 2009. As part of the proceedings, the safety board released hundreds of pages of preliminary reports and data on the accident, including a transcript of Shults and Ellisor’s words during the emergency.

A blade on the main fan at the front of the engine snapped off as the plane was flying about 345 miles per hour at 32,000 feet after departing from New York on a flight to Dallas. The CFM56-7B was made by CFM International Inc., a joint venture between General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA.

One piece from the outer shell of the engine shattered a window where Jennifer Riordan, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was seated. As the pressurized air in the cabin rushed outside, it pulled her head and torso through the opening. She died of “blunt-force injuries,” a medical examiner later concluded.

The pilots initially had no idea what had happened toward the rear of the plane. The roar of rushing air made their first comments after the engine failed at 11:03:33 a.m. unintelligible, according to the transcript.

“If you’re trying to get me, all I hear is static,” an air-traffic controller radioed the crew about a minute after the explosion.

“Southwest thirteen eighty has an engine fire, descending,” Shults replied, using their flight number to identify herself.

Warning System

About two minutes into the emergency, the plane’s automated safety system began warning that the plane was dangerously tilted to one side, with a mechanical voice saying, “bank angle.” Shults said she adjusted the rudder, which is used to keep a plane flying straight and level after an engine failure.

As the pilots performed check lists and communicated with controllers, who directed them to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia, chaotic scenes played out in the cabin.

Some passengers struggled to don their oxygen masks. In some cases, the tubes providing oxygen came loose and had to be reattached. Others put the masks on improperly, only covering their mouths and not their nostrils, the NTSB said.

The flight attendants and passengers also tried to save Riordan.

Wind Pressure

As she moved through the cabin shortly after the failure, Mallory saw that the passenger in seat 13A -- directly in front of Riordan -- was “very upset,” investigators said in a summary of an interview with her.

“She looked back at the window seat in row 14 and saw a passenger partially outside the window,” the NTSB said in the summary. “Her head, arms and upper body were outside.”

Two men moved from other rows to try to pull Riordan back into the plane. One told investigators he put his arm out the open window and said the wind pressure was “more than tremendous.”

“I couldn’t hold my arm straight out there,” he said. “It pushed my arm back around to where she was.”

CPR Performed

Initially, they couldn’t move her, but they were eventually able to pull her right arm inside, followed by her head. After bringing her into the cabin, they laid her across row 14, where one of them -- a paramedic -- began performing CPR. He was joined by a school nurse and they took turns.

Long after the emergency landing, Shults still didn’t know how Riordan had fared. In a brief exchange picked up by the recording system after the evacuation, Shults asked an airport firefighter who came to the cockpit about the passenger. “Do we have any word on our...?” Shults said.

“It doesn’t, look good,” the firefighter replied.

Less than a minute later, Shults spoke to Ellisor. “I think that’s our only injury,” she said. “And I don’t mean to say it lightly.”

Riordan’s death was the first passenger fatality in an accident in Southwest’s history.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.