Southwest Airlines Flight 1380: How Common Are Aircraft Decompressions?

On April 17, 2018, Southwest Airlines flight 1380 suffered a fuselage breach caused by an explosion on one of its engines. This breach led to a rapid depressurization and partially sucked a mother of 2 out of the plane. The mother of 2, Jennifer Riordan, later passed away due to her injuries. 7 other people were also injured. So just what happened, and how common are these types of incidents?

When you get into an airplane by yourself and take off, you find yourself in this lovely, three-dimensional world where you can go in any direction. There is no feeling any more exciting than that. – Gene Roddenberry

What Happened on Flight 1380

A Boeing 737, similar to 1380. Image source: Wikicommons

Southwest Airlines flight 1380 departed from New York – Laguardia airport on its way to Dallas Love Field on April 17. Around 11:00 am, one of the plane’s 2 engines suffered some sort of explosion, likely caused by the turbine experiencing metal fatigue. The explosion tore apart the engine shroud and ended up penetrating the plane’s fuselage and window, resulting in a rapid decompression. The plane was able to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia, where it was discovered the affected engine had a fuel leak and was on fire.

The passenger sitting near the affected window was partially sucked out through the window due to the pressurization differences in the cabin and the air outside. Other passengers quickly acted and were able to pull the passenger, Ms. Riordan, back into the plane and immediately began giving her medical treatment. She, unfortunately, succumbed to her wounds at the hospital. 7 other people were also injured, but they were not taken to the hospital.

Before you rethink your next Southwest Airlines flight, know this; this is the first in-flight accident that has resulted in a passenger death. Southwest Airlines is one of the safest airline companies in the United States and has an incredibly great safety record. This is also the first American airliner involved in a fatal accident in 9 years, the last one was Colgan Air flight 3407 when it crashed due to pilot error.

Plane Information
Aircraft TypeBoeing 737
Flight OriginLaGuardia Airport
Flight DestinationMcCarren International Airport
Passengers144
Crew5
Injuries7
Deaths1
Aircraft’s First FlightJune 2000

The Investigation

Since this incident so recently the investigation is still occurring, however, there are some things that we do know.

The engine turbine (the fan looking thing inside the engine) likely suffered metal fatigue that eventually led to it breaking apart. Investigators also know that the fuselage was punctured at the window, resulting in the rapid decompression.

Air Safety

As we said above, air travel is extremely safe and the likelihood of being involved in a plane crash is extremely low. So far, there have been only 35 aircraft crashes attributed to engine failure. When you take into account the millions of flights that have happened over the last 50 years alone, 35 incidents are next to nothing in the grand scheme of the sheer amount of flights.

Now, explosive decompression leading to aircraft crashes are more prevalent, and deadly. Let’s go over some famous incidents involving explosive decompression.

Decompression Incidents

Before we cover the more well-known incidents involving decompression, we first need to go over what decompression is. There are different types of decompression:

  • Rapid decompression is when there is a quick drop of pressurization on an aircraft
    • Air from the lungs is able to vent
  • Explosive decompression is a very violent, and quick, depressurization on an aircraft
    • It is so quick that our lungs are not able to vent safely
  • Slow decompression is when pressurization is very slow, slow enough to where hypoxia will settle in before the problem is known

What Southwest Airline 1380 experienced is rapid decompression, not explosive decompression. Explosive decompressions are extremely violent and oftentimes lead to issues with the structural integrity of the aircraft.

Here are some notable crashes that have happened due to decompression:

Japan Airlines Flight 123

In August 1985, this Boeing 747 took off from Haneda Airport bound for Osaka International Airport experienced an explosive decompression in flight, leading to the tail of the plane being ripped off. The decompression was caused by an improperly “fixed” rear bulkhead after the plane suffered a tail strike years before.

This is the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, killing 520 people. There were only 4 survivors.

Aloha Airlines Flight 243

Image source: Pixabay

This Boeing 737 suffered an explosive decompression caused by metal fatigue in April 1988. A majority of the plane’s roof was torn off, resulting in 1 fatality after a flight attendant was sucked out of the plane. The plane was able to make a clean landing and the incident taught investigators a great deal about metal fatigue.

TWA Flight 800

This is one of the more famous examples of explosive decompression. TWA 800 experienced explosive decompression after fuel vapors came into contact with exposed wiring and exploded the plane. This was initially believed to be a terror attack since the plane exploded, but investigators found absolutely no proof of a bomb. Instead, investigators had to gather the wreckage of the plane and piece it together to see what actually happened. All 230 people on board were killed.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

This crash might be one that many of you remember. Months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 Malaysia Airlines had another loss, this time due to a surface to air missile launched by Pro-Russian separatists from Ukraine. The missile struck flight 17, causing an explosive decompression and the plane broke apart in mid-air. This is the deadliest shootdown of an airliner, killing all 298 people on board.

Why Air Travel Is Safe

Image source: Pexels

While these crashes might seem scary or even seem like they happen a lot, the truth is that air travel is incredibly safe. It is the safest mode of transportation, the odds of getting in a plane crash are about the same as winning the lottery and then getting struck by a bus right after. The incident with Southwest Airlines flight 1380 is extremely unfortunate and we send our condolences to Ms. Riordan. This incident was an example of a very freak accident that luckily hardly ever happens.

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