David Delucia settled back into his airplane seat and began to relax on the way to a long-awaited vacation when a massive explosion and flash of light interrupted an in-flight announcement and put him into survival mode.
The Boeing 777-200, which took off from Denver to Honolulu on Saturday with 231 passengers and 10 crew on board, suffered a catastrophic failure in the right engine and flames erupted under the wing as the plane began to lose altitude.
As Delucia and his wife prepared for the worst, people in this Denver suburb reacted with horror when huge chunks of the engine casing and chunks of fiberglass rained down on a sports field and on streets and lawns, missing just one house and crushing a truck . The explosion, visible from the ground, left a trail of black smoke in the air and small pieces of insulation filled the air like ash.
The plane landed safely at Denver International Airport and no one on board or on the ground was injured, authorities said. But those in the air as well as on the ground were deeply shaken.
“When it initially happened I thought we were done. I thought we were going down, ”said Delucia, stuffing his wallet in his pocket so that he could be easily identified if the plane had crashed. “The pilot has done a fantastic job. It was pretty nerve-racking. "
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the plane had a right engine failure shortly after takeoff.
Video posted on Twitter showed that the engine went up completely in flames as the plane flew through the sky. Freeze frames from various videos taken by a passenger slightly in front of the bike and posted to Twitter appeared to reveal a broken fan blade in the engine.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Authorities have not released details of the cause of the outage.
United said in a separate statement that most of United Flight 328's passengers were rebooked on a new flight to Hawaii, but some chose to stay in a hotel instead.
Broomfield police posted photos on Twitter showing large, round pieces of debris that appeared to be the hood leaning against a suburban house about 15 miles northwest of Denver. Police asked anyone who had been injured on the ground to come forward.
Tyler Thal, who lives nearby, told The Associated Press that he was out for a walk with his family when he noticed a large commercial plane flying unusually low and picked up his phone to film it.
“While looking at it, I saw an explosion and then the cloud of smoke and some debris fell out. It was like a speck in the sky, and as I watch it, I tell my family what I just saw and then we heard the explosion, & # 39; & # 39 ;, he said in a telephone interview. "The plane just kept moving, and we didn't see it after that."
Kirby Klements was inside with his wife when they heard a huge booming noise, he said. Seconds later, the couple saw a huge chunk of debris fly past their window to the loading floor of Klements' truck, crushing the cab and pushing the vehicle into the dirt.
He estimated the circular hood to be 4.5 meters in diameter. Fine bits of the fiberglass insulation used in the aircraft engine fell about 10 minutes & # 39; as ash & # 39; out of the blue, he said, and several large chunks of insulation ended up in his backyard.
"If it had been 10 feet different, it would have landed on top of the house," he said in a telephone interview with the AP. "And if someone had been in the truck, they would have been dead."
Based on the first photos and videos posted by passengers, aviation safety experts said the plane appeared to have suffered an irrepressible and catastrophic engine failure.
Such an event is extremely rare and occurs when huge spinning pieces in the engine somehow malfunction and break an armored casing around the engine designed to limit damage, said John Cox, an aviation safety expert and retired pilot who drives. an aviation safety consultancy called Safety Operating Systems.
"That unbalanced disc has a lot of power and it spins at a few thousand revolutions per minute … and when you have that much centrifugal force, it has to go somewhere," he said in a telephone interview.
Pilots regularly practice how to deal with such an event and would have immediately turned off anything flammable in the engine, including fuel and hydraulic fluid, with a single switch, Cox said.
Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall cited the incident as another example of "cracks in our aviation safety culture (which) need to be addressed."
Hall, who served on the board from 1994 to 2001, has over the past decade criticized the FAA for "aiming to get manufacturers to oversee aviation that the public paid for." That's especially true of Boeing, he said.
The last fatal accident on a US airline flight involved an engine failure on a Southwest Airlines flight from New York to Dallas in April 2018. A passenger was killed when the engine disintegrated more than 9,000 meters above Pennsylvania and debris hit the plane and the window broke. next to her chair. She was forced halfway through the window before other passengers pulled her back in.
In that case, the malfunction was attributed to a broken fan blade in a Boeing 737 engine. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to step up inspections of fan blades on certain engines of CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and France. Safran SA
In 2010, a Qantas Airbus A380 suffered a terrifying, incessant engine failure shortly after take-off from Singapore. Shrapnel from the engine damaged critical systems in the plane, but pilots were able to land safely. The incident was blamed on the inadequate production of a pipe in the Rolls Royce engine.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.