Jet Engine Explosion Triggered Chaotic 2015 Las Vegas Fire

(Bloomberg) -- Most emergency exits were blocked in a chaotic race to escape a blazing British Airways Plc jet that aborted its takeoff in Las Vegas almost three years ago, investigators found in the latest probe of a violent jet engine failure.

The left power plant on a Boeing Co. 777-200ER broke apart on Sept. 8, 2015, as the plane was accelerating for takeoff, causing a massive blaze that burned through the wing and fuselage. While none of the 170 people aboard -- including a child in a passenger’s lap -- died, one was seriously hurt and 19 others suffered minor injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board couldn’t determine why a disk within the General Electric Co. GE90-85BG11 engine failed, but the report issued Wednesday said a lack of inspection requirements allowed a crack to grow for years without detection. The report also faulted pilots for initially forgetting to shut off the engines after stopping on the runway, which meant that winds from exhaust rendered exit slides unusable.

The case is the latest to raise concerns about emergency evacuations on airliners and is one of a spate of recent violent engine failures. The NTSB is probing the April 17 death of a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines Co. plane who was partially sucked from the cabin after an engine failure fractured a window. Engines are supposed to be designed to fail without damaging an aircraft.

The British Airways plane, which was headed from McCarran International Airport to London’s Gatwick Airport, had reached a speed of almost 92 miles (147 kilometers) an hour when pilots heard a “bang” and aborted the takeoff.

Read more: FAA Orders Emergency Engine Checks After Southwest Fatality

The cockpit crew at first didn’t realize there was a fire outside the engine and the captain initially ordered passengers not to evacuate, NTSB said. After smoke became visible around the plane and a pilot who had gone into the cabin reported the fire, the captain called for an emergency evacuation.

With fire blocking some exits on the left side and the still-running right engine blasting wind against the rear two exits on that side of the plane, passengers had to escape through only two of the eight doors, the NTSB found. In the chaotic moments of the emergency, pilots also didn’t perform proper checklists, according to the investigation.

“Our crew responded quickly and decisively bringing the aircraft to a swift halt, assessing the situation and safely evacuating the aircraft,” British Airways said in a statement. “The safety of our customers and crew is always our very first priority.”

The engine failed so violently that metal fragments broke through a protective covering, spraying the area and plane with debris and also triggering a fuel leak that erupted in flames. Manufacturers must show engines can fail without allowing such shrapnel to escape before they can be certified.

The engine that failed had been inspected in 2008 and the crack would have been visible at the time, the NTSB concluded. However, the disk wasn’t required to be inspected. The lack of an inspection regimen for the part contributed to the accident, NTSB concluded.

GE couldn’t determine why the part failed so much earlier than the company had predicted and inspections of similar parts found no evidence of any other cracks. After the accident, the company and the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the airline industry, required inspections of the part that failed.

“We have never experienced the cracking to this particular compressor component that led to the Las Vegas incident in any other GE90 engine,” GE said in an emailed statement. “Not before the accident, nor during the fleet inspections after the incident.” The engine model has been in service since 1995.

In the Southwest accident, a fan blade on a CFM International Inc. CFM56-7B engine broke loose above Pennsylvania and bounced in front of the engine’s protective shield, causing the external casing to break loose. CFM is a joint venture between GE and France’s Safran SA.

Investigators in that case are trying to figure out why the blade cracked and whether government regulations on engine safety are adequate to protect against such failures.

The NTSB is also investigating a Feb. 13 incident in which a United Airlines 777 engine, this one a PW4077 made by United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney subsidiary, suffered damage over the Pacific Ocean while en route to Honolulu.

The NTSB concluded in a separate investigation that a flaw in a part within a GE CF6-80 engine on an American Airlines 767 caused a violent failure as it attempted to take off Oct. 28, 2016, in Chicago.

The safety board identified similar breakdowns in that emergency evacuation. The pilots also left the engines running, hindering the evacuation, and there were communication miscues, investigators concluded.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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