The Chilling Conversation With Air Traffic Control as Southwest 1380 Prepared to Land

Southwest Airlines flight 1380 experienced an uncontained engine failure yesterday.

The inlet and pieces of the engine cowl separated from the pane. Debris hit the side of the fuselage and shattered a window. The aircraft lost pressure. Apparently a female passenger was nearly sucked out of the plane. Passengers pulled her back inside. Despite those efforts a passenger died, and several others were injured.

So far we know that a fan blade broke at the engine hub and separated. There appeared to be metal fatigue at the separation point.

Listening to the pilot talk to air traffic control as they made their descent into Philadelphia for an emergency landing is chilling. My whole body shakes and goes numb as I play this. The pilot did an incredible job, she stayed calm, dealt with everything matter of factly as she must and provided necessary information to the ground so that they could have the priority they needed getting to the ground and emergency services prepared for their arrival.

The Southwest 737 landed safely on runway 27L and it stopped short on an adjacent taxiway. Responding emergency crew foamed the damaged engine. Passengers deplaned via stairs onto the taxiway.

This was the first US airline accident involving a fatality since Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February 2009. It was the first Southwest Airlines incident which caused the death of a passenger onboard (in the airline’s history a passenger who stormed the cockpit died onboard from injuries resulting from the reaction of other passengers, and one person who died on the ground in an incident).

I grieve for the person who died, and am grateful for the return of the rest of those onboard. And I marvel at the nerves of the captain who appeared to do her job exceptionally well under difficult circumstances.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s not necessarily a comment on Southwest, but it makes some sense that we’d be seeing failures like this and the one last year in their engines first (that is if any were ever going to happen), as their plane have substantially more cycles, in any apples to apples comparison.

    The lessons learned here are going to be in the Metallurgy of the blades, and the failure of the existing maintenance procedures to catch flaws (or flat out poor maintenance). They are important and urgent lessons.

  2. Sorry but this is not a “chilling” conversation. It is a very professional conversation between the pilot and the controller.

  3. Gary, your comments yesterday about airline employees joining a union—“Unionization alone isn’t the death knell for customer service (though it doesn’t help)”–make even less sense.

    Sully Sullenberger is a strong advocate for his union. Tammy Jo Shults is also a member of the Southwest pilots union. They both provided EXCELLENT customer service!

    It appears you are focused on how quickly you will get your champagne….instead of 1) How can we support airline employees to do the safest possible job? and 2) what are the needs of airline employees so they can thrive while working for the airline.

    None of us are here for your political views. There is enough of that online already. A lot of people disagree with your apparent disdain for unions. stop these divisive comments.

  4. Should the slides have been deployed? The passengers seemed to exit slowly and talked with the pilots and crew.

    On the other hand, going down the slides usually means some injuries, like a sprained ankle. Once, in a test, an elderly woman volunteer slid down head first and broke her neck. She volunteered for the test in return for $20.

    If you were on the right (starboard) overwing exit, would you have opened the emergency exit?

  5. Doctors do this all the time. The patient is going to die in minutes if nothing is done. According to TV shows (ha ha, not always accurate), the doctor calls for certain medication, look at the heart monitor, then do stuff that sometimes results in the patient not dying.

  6. The pilot sounds more like she is in a state of shock. She probably can’t rationalize what she is being told about there being a hole in the side of the plane and someone went out. I would imagine most pilots would have difficult processing someone telling them that happened to their plane. Still even with one engine a plane like this can fly safely and engine failures while very rare do happen like 2 dozen times a year. Also, there are two pilots on the flight deck so it would be nice if the co-pilot got some recognition. The pilot did a good job but I suspect that any pilot for a major airline would have been able to handle this. These types of situations are exactly why pilots train soo much.

  7. Gary, if you want chilling but for a different reason, check out this YouTube compilation video and audio.

    Boy do I agree with Bill. The pilot sounds in denial or not properly informed. Especially on the ground, they had someone either having a heart attack or bleeding out. Where was the sense of urgency? And why did the Philly fire chief have to have his widdle hand held with all these questions, all the way to the plane? And, Why did they make a plane in distress switch frequencies at least once at high altitude, in the middle of the emergency? Again I think Bill is exactly right, and I actually think the pilot understated the severity of the emergency.

    Honestly after listening to all this it’s more upsetting, cuz frankly it sounds like a shitshow. If I was family member of the woman who died, Id be going f****** Shaka Zulu right now. Moral of the story after listening to this – don’t have an emergency on a plane, you’re screwed.

  8. Even the air traffic controllers come in for some criticism. Too much cross talk, and too much of them talking, period, with the Pilot’s trying to get a word in edgewise. WTF!

  9. I’m surprised she wasn’t a little more specific about the issue. “part of plane is missing” seems like an odd way to word the problems. How about something along the lines of “cabin depressurized” and “one engine out”. Perhaps she said that on another part of the audio not included in the clip.

    This incident is why I never sit in the rows at the front of the wing.

  10. Keeping in mind that this audio was edited some in the above YouTube video, but it’s clear the plane was on the ground for at least 2 minutes before any sense of urgency was communicated with the phrase, “we need to get the EMS on board”.

  11. “My whole body shakes and goes numb” Are you having a seizure? You should try your hand at writing suspense novels.

  12. Thanks Steve for the link to a more extended version. I agree with Gary, that certainly gave me chills.

    Early in the exchange the ATC was trying to get the pilots’ attention, and when the pilots key the mic, you can hear the alarms in the background, yet ATC still seems to banter them. However once they transferred the plane to the NY ATC, that guy was excellent in helping them get down (the one you hear on NBC’s snip-it that Gary linked to).

    It is amazing that we can take our fragile bodies and move them in a thin structure at these speeds and height, and even more stunning is that realization when something bad is happening.

    While not as “seasoned” at flying as many of the readers on here, I think the Captain and co-pilot did a great job! The pilots probably had a vague idea as to the actual structural condition of their aircraft the whole time, especially after a large, plane shaking, thud as the engine blew apart, sending shrapnel into the fuselage. Most alarms probably sounded, the fire suppression needed to be engaged (or verified), the aircraft probably was shaking like hell due to decompression, holes in the body and wing, and a huge airbrake that was one the port engine.

    I think the pilots, being as calm as they are, were a boon to the safety of the aircraft and indicates their professionalism. Not knowing the full extent of damage due to isolation in the cockpit, trying to keep the aircraft steady, fighting a fire, coordinate with ATC (and later the fire dept), and coordinate with the flight attendants (as they struggled to save the passenger’s life, deal with low oxygen levels, ensure no one else was critically injured, and preparing for emergency landing)… whew! I’m tired and scared just think about it! : )

    All in, fantastic job by all around. It is easy to arm-chair quarterback afterwards, but I bet it was chaotic as hell until them came to a stop in Philly!

  13. Oh, one question for the group. Does anyone know if the lady, that passed away, was wearing her seat belt?

  14. @Sullly4Prezdent

    You’re the guy posting pro-union political commentary where it isn’t called for.

    Sully and Shults can both be union members and do a good job. But the quality of their work is independent of their union membership, and any individual union member doing a good job has no relevance to the value of unions as a whole. A union is only valuable if it shifts value from the firm to union members. That reduces the ability of the firm to deliver consumer surplus.

    Any cartel is great as long as you are a member of that cartel. Everyone else loses.

  15. Did it occur to anyone that the reason that the pilots might not have known all the details about what was happening in the cabin was because the FAs were too busy attending to the injured and dealing with the deployment of oxygen masks etc, and simply did not have the time (rightly so) to provide all the glorious details?

    I listen to that recording and hear calm professionalism from a woman who has flown Navy jets for years and is, by all reports, one cool, strong human being. She even took the time to go back and talk to the passengers personally as they deplaned.

    People complain about Gary’s politics, but I’d rather have that than the deep vein of cynicism that runs through too many of these comments.

    If you told me my plane was in trouble, I’d put Captain Shults in the pilot seat no hesitation.

  16. Agree with what others say. This is not “chilling”. Get a grip if it rocks your world. Clickbait.

  17. Gary: I stand corrected, apologies. The comment was under review for moderation for so long (hours) and then disappeared completely. None of my other comments made sense without the link, nor did any other explanation make sense.

  18. Well it was chilling **for me**, the description of how I felt was genuine. YMMV I suppose but there’s nothing click bait about telling you exactly how I felt listening to this.

  19. I thought the whole exchange was calm, cool and professional. Better that than someone, either ATC or pilot, freaking out. I’m impressed.

  20. Clearly the flight deck didn’t know the extent of the problems. Pilot’s voice audibly changed when notifying of losing a passenger out the hole in the plane. The ONLY thing I’m wondering about is why no mention of the loss of cabin pressure, that would seem very relevant info especially so ATC can help determine the severity of the problem and the need to clear a runway for the emergency. The fact that ground still hadn’t notified all airport traffic that 27L was out of service shows that no one knew the extent of the problem until fire trucks were on the scene. Even if FAs were attending to any injuries it would seem important to notify the flight deck of the hull breach. Just my thoughts. All in all it was an admirable job by all involved to get the plane back on the ground. And condolences to the family that just lost a wife and mother. Any time life is lost it’s a ‘chilling’ event.

  21. Not a pilot, BUT the #1 job of the pilot is to FLY THE PLANE. For those of you who seem to know everything except what they are talking about, the pilot knows they need to get the plane on the ground as soon and safe as possible. Flying a twin engine on one engine requires full attention and a lot of work to offset the dynamics of one engine pulling and rotating (from a friend is twin engine certified). You are countering the plane trying to go in a circle and roll (think about it). The pilot was just recovering from a 41 degree bank. I imagine the frequency was changed so as to have a clear uninterrupted conversation with the tower. Great job by the pilot.

  22. Good comments all around. I wonder if pilots and ATC’s simulate conversations involving emergencies?
    Why only one communication channel between ATC and the plane?
    I thought this event was live streamed or could have been.
    Certainly SWA knew the details from the cabin crew before the plane landed, because that’s what $XX billion companies do. Sears can do this.
    2009 was the last US airline based fatality, not the last crash landing. Given the increase in air traffic, the communications need to improve exponentially and guessing games on 100 to 300 passenger planes needs to go away.
    Are airlines stuck with 20th century mindsets?
    By the way, passengers and cabin may have been in phase four or five of grief, knowing the fellow passenger had succumbed to her injuries. Even so, if she was not the first person evacuated and carried to an awaiting ambulance, then the airline and airport need to investigate. Customers pay way too much in landing fees, Homeland security fees, luggage fees, rental car tax, and airfare to get economy basic service in an emergency landing.

  23. Just a curious question, but who’s leg was it anyway?
    From all the media coverage, audio and articles, I’m led to believe that the Capt was flying this leg as well as handling the Comms and Nav. This is certainly not the norm from when I had been flying. It’s normally a switch every leg with the Capt flying the first of the day. I guess the FO had nothing to do.
    Not much in the way of cockpit resource management going on here.
    Seems a bit funny.

  24. William..all CRM models have the pilot flying handling the radios in these emergencies. Pilot Monitoring should be running the QRH , checklists, setting landing data and speeds. Pilot flying is flying and talking. The use of autopilot is still permitted single engine. You think the FO was doing nothing. The FO was VERY busy

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