Escape Chaos on Fiery American Airlines Jet Detailed by NTSB

  • Panicked passengers, lack of communication in Oct. 28 accident
  • Boeing 767 engine caught fire on Chicago runway before takeoff

Firefighters extinguish flames from American Airlines Flight which caught fire on a runway at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Oct. 28, 2016.

Photographer: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Panicked passengers on an American Airlines widebody aircraft in Chicago last October demanded to evacuate as a massive fire engulfed the right wing, and were blasted by exhaust from an engine that pilots hadn’t shut down.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board released more than 500 pages of investigative reports Thursday detailing how a metallurgical flaw led to a violent right engine failure, a fire that raged outside the plane, and the ensuing evacuation.

Flight attendants described a chaotic scene as they at first tried to prevent passengers from fleeing because the plane’s left engine was still operating and was buffeting two of the three escape slides. They relented after smoke began filling the cabin, and some of the passengers were blown to the tarmac by the blast of air from the working engine while they attempted to evacuate, according to the investigative reports.

One flier told investigators that he “stood up to get away from the airplane and was blown over by the thrust coming out of the back of the engine,” NTSB wrote in one report. “He got back up again ran to a grass strip next to the runway. He could feel pain in his back.”

Flight 383, a Boeing Co. 767-300, was accelerating for takeoff Oct. 28 when its right engine exploded in what’s known as an uncontained failure. Shrapnel from the disintegrating engine ripped through the hardened casing and it burst into flames.

Massive Fireball

Leaking fuel triggered a massive fireball on the right of the plane as passengers evacuated out the other side. Out of 170 people aboard, one person suffered a serious injury and 19 had minor injuries, according to NTSB.

The NTSB documents include technical reports on the crew’s performance, the failure in the engine, and the evacuation. They stop short of reaching any conclusions about the causes of the incident, which will be issued later.

Flight attendants said they weren’t able to contact the cockpit to coordinate the evacuation with the pilots. Passengers had begun racing to the left side of the plane even before it stopped on the runway. Some people insisted on trying to bring their bags with them despite repeated calls to leave them by flight attendants.

One attendant reported having an altercation with a passenger who refused to obey her instruction to leave luggage behind. “He refused to drop it and proceeded forward with the bag over his head,” the NTSB said in a report.

A surveillance camera video released by the NTSB shows that the first of the plane’s exit doors was opened less than 20 seconds after the plane came to a stop. Fire was already engulfing the right side of the aircraft as black smoke billowed into the air.

40 Seconds

All three of the exit doors were opened within about 40 seconds of the plane stopping, though the engine’s exhaust was buffeting the two inflatable exit slides at the middle and rear of the aircraft.

A flight attendant at the rear of the plane said he and another attendant held off opening the emergency exit while waiting to hear from the pilots.

“As they were waiting the cabin began to fill with smoke, so they decided to open the door and evacuate,” NTSB said in a report. “Once the door was open he could see passengers rolling across the runway behind the engine and the slide blowing to the rear.”

While attendants are given leeway to react to potentially catastrophic emergencies, American instructs them to assess whether engines are still running before ordering an evacuation, according to the NTSB. 

Checklist Requirement

It took at least a minute from the time the plane stopped until the copilot reported shutting off fuel to the engines, according to a transcript of the cockpit’s voice recorder. Pilots told investigators that it took a long time to depressurize the cabin, which was required in the evacuation checklist before shutting off the engine and ordering an evacuation. The captain described the checklist as “cumbersome.”

“We are proud of our pilots, flight attendants and other team members who responded quickly on Oct. 28, 2016, to take care of our customers and colleagues under very challenging circumstances,” American spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

A rotating disk within the General Electric Co. CF6-80 engine had an “internal inclusion,” meaning foreign debris became embedded within the nickel- and chromium-based alloy designed to withstand the heat and high stresses of a jet engine, according to the NTSB.

The engine that failed was built in 1997, according to GE.

The company has issued a voluntary recommendation to operators that disks made from 1984 to 2000 be inspected using an ultrasonic technique during those engines’ next scheduled shop visit, said GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy. Many of the roughly 4,000 disks made during the period have been retired and it’s not clear the number still in service, he said.

Boeing didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The American flight had accelerated to 154 miles (248 kilometers) per hour before the pilots began applying the brakes, according to NTSB. It came to a stop about 25 seconds later. Fire crews arrived on scene and started applying foam to the burning jet fuel within 2 minutes and 51 seconds of being notified of the emergency, NTSB said.

The fire burned so hot that the right wing partially collapsed.

— With assistance by Michael Sasso, Julie Johnsson, and Rick Clough

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