Travelers describe terror as Southwest grounds 81 planes
- By Joel Siegfried, Airlines/Airport Examiner
- April 2nd, 2011 7:22 pm ET
Following the fuselage rupture and sudden loss of cabin pressure on Friday, April 1, 2011 at about 3:45 p.m. local time flying at 36,000 feet over Arizona, on Southwest Airlines Flight 812, a Boeing 737-3H4, N632SW, which had been in service for 15 years since 1996, the carrier announced that it was grounding at least 81 similar Boeing 737 aircraft, as reported by the Washington Post, MSNBC, and other media sources on Saturday, April 2, 2011.
That decision came after an Airworthiness Directive by the Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections for aircraft skin fatigue in a certain grouping of Southwest Airlines’ all Boeing 737 fleet, which as of September 30, 2010, consisted of 547 aircraft.
About fifteen percent of the carrier’s total fleet will be vigorously inspected over the next several days, using x-ray and ultrasound, along with visual inspections by the naked eye, aided by a device known as a borescope, and other tools using advanced optical and imaging systems.
The so-called “subset“ of grounded aircraft being intensely examined are most probably among Southwest’s aging fleet of 137 passenger Boeing 737-3H4 planes, of which 173 aircraft are currently in service.
Some of the aircraft which fall into this category are N334SW, the “Shamu” livery, built in 1988; N648SW in classic livery, built in 1997; N609SW, called “California One”, built in 1995; and several others which are shown in the slide show and attached video clip which accompany this article.
A similar Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-3H4, N387SW, built in 1994, and operating as Flight WN 2294, also suffered an in-flight fuselage rupture on July 13, 2009, and made an emergency landing at Yeager Airport (CRW) in Charleston, West Virginia, after a cabin decompression left a football sized hole in the plane’s fuselage.
In 2008, Southwest Airlines was fined $7.5 million by the FAA for lax maintenance and inspection practices. It is not yet known if this most recent event can be traced back to a missed inspection.
The airline has also been cooperating fully with the National Transportation Safety Board, which immediately dispatched a Go Team to Yuma, Arizona to investigate Friday’s mid air blowout.
The FBI indicated earlier today that the incident was a “mechanical failure” and not an act of terrorism, or other foul play.
Passengers are just grateful to have survived the ordeal, which one described as “terrifying”, and which left many of them badly shaken. Larry Downey, who was seated directly below the hole when it opened, told Phoenix TV station KPNX that “It was pandemonium. You could look out and see blue sky.”
For others, it was hardly more than a routine flight. Shawna Malvini Redden, a passenger aboard the flight, tweeted after landing, “One flight attendant was injured and a couple passengers passed out, but nothing major.”
As aircraft go through multiple flight cycles of takeoff and landing, repeated cabin pressurizations put stress on components of the airframe and fuselage plates, causing metal fatigue. The phenomenon is similar to bending a paper clip back and forth until it breaks.
Such an event happened, with tragic results, to a BOAC de Havilland Comet as early as May 2, 1953, in a fatal accident which was attributed to structural failure of the airframe. That aircraft was the world’s first commercial jet airliner to reach production.
Unlike bottles of fine wine, and perhaps some alluring celebrities, aircraft do not improve with age. That is just one of the reasons that maintenance inspections are so critical to prevent such incidents from happening again.
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