It was 20 minutes into the scheduled flight from New York City to Dallas that disaster struck Southwest Flight 1380. The jet suffered an engine failure at 32,500 feet over eastern Pennsylvania. Debris went flying and some of it punched out a window, partially sucking out a passenger. Fellow passengers were able to pull her back inside, but she died of her injuries.
Things could have been a lot worse were it not for the plane’s captain, Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy fighter pilot and one of the first women to fly the F/A-18. She calmly steered the plane to safe emergency landing at Philadelphia, where passengers praised Shults’ “nerves of steel.”
Here's what she was dealing with.
One Engine Down
In the immediate aftermath of SWA 1380’s engine failure, the flight crew had essentially two problems: the lack of thrust from the failed engine, and the loss of air pressure due to the punctured cabin.
In the case of the engine loss itself, the problem was not all that dire. In fact, airliners can fly quite well on just one. The Boeing 777 is certified to fly up to five and a half hours with one engine out.
With less power, a plane will be unable to maintain its maximum altitude, and so might drift down somewhat into thicker air. Otherwise, airliners can fly safely without suffering a great loss of performance.
And mid-flight engine failures aren't entirely uncommon. In February, a United Airlines 777 and a Delta A330 made emergency landings on the same day because of engine problems.
The second problem with Southwest Flight 1380 is where things got bad.
While losing an engine sounds scary, it was the loss of air pressure that placed the plane in greater peril. Human beings can't survive long without air, and passengers’ drop-down air masks provide only enough oxygen for about 12 to 20 minutes.
When the jet lost pressure, Shults’ focus would have been getting the aircraft down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible. At that level, the air is thick enough that it’s possible for people to maintain consciousness without pressurization. (In mountainous areas like the Rockies where terrain can be higher than 10,000 feet, pilots aim for the minimum safe altitude.)
The standard operating procedure in this case is for the flight crew to call air traffic control, declare an emergency, and begin a rapid descent, with the thrust lever for the remaining engine set to idle and thin plates known as spoilers extended above the wings to increase drag. To prevent blacking out, Shults and her copilot would have donned full-face masks supplied by a pressurized oxygen tank.
In the case of Southwest 1380, the descent from 31,684 feet took about five minutes—a brisk rate, but perhaps not “precipitous” as one passenger later described it. Once having reached 10,000 feet, the flight crew would have removed their oxygen masks and continued to fly the plane normally, which the Southwest crew did until their emergency landing in Philly.
They could have had it worse. There have been a handful of cases on commercial flights in which an emergency has knocked out both engines. In such cases, a good flight crew can still use the plane’s altitude as an energy source and glide safely to a runway.
The pilots of did this in 2001, when they ran out of fuel over the Atlantic, 75 miles from the nearest airstrip, but managed a safe landing in the Azores. If lacking enough altitude to reach a runway, a skilled pilot could aim for a level stretch of ground like a levee (as TACA Flight 110 did near New Orleans in 1988) or a body of water (as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger so famously did in 2009).
In this case of Southwest 1380, all the plane’s systems were working except for one engine, which was effectively redundant anyway. In the moment of crisis, Shults was called upon to follow her training—which she did admirably.