Just how masterfully Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot of the badly crippled Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, handled the problem of an engine exploding at 30,000 feet is winning admiration from thousands of her fellow pilots—and should finally help to temper the hubris of what has been a notoriously testosterone-charged profession.
Consider this: The Boeing 737’s left engine suffered a catastrophic failure when one of its fan blades—a part that looks like a pirate’s scimitar and is just as lethal when let loose—broke away, ripped through the engine casing that was supposed to contain it, and then, along with other pieces of shrapnel, tore into the skin of the airplane’s cabin.
Airplane cabins are like a pressure vessel. At 30,000 feet, where the jet was when the failure occurred, the pressure inside the cabin was far higher than in the outside air. The debris instantly punctured this pressure vessel, releasing an explosive rush of air. One cabin window was shattered and with the violent release of air, the woman seated at that window, Jennifer Rioardan, was partly sucked out, suffering injuries that were fatal.
Oxygen masks were automatically dropped to passengers to provide air that they could breathe—but inevitably this added to the visceral sense of impending catastrophe.
Simultaneously the crew put on their own oxygen masks. At this point Captain Shults and her copilot were carrying out a visual and audio assessment of the damage to the 737, simultaneously scanning all the instruments to note the condition of vital systems. Most alarmingly, they saw an alarm flashing, indicating that they had an engine fire. Fire of any kind is the last thing a pilot wants to see in a situation like this because if it gets out of control it can destroy an airplane in seconds.
The pilots’ first priority was to make a rapid descent to 10,000 feet where the difference between the outside air pressure and the cabin pressure begins to equalize. This greatly reduces the risk that other parts of the cabin structure will rupture because of the pressure stresses.
At the same time Captain Shults was talking to controllers to report her situation, and requesting an emergency landing at Philadelphia, as well as requesting medical help for passengers.
Read more at the Daily Beast.