On its journey from New York to Dallas, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 suffered a serious accident. One of the plane’s engines failed, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing. And it became apparent to flight attendants that many passengers hadn’t listened to the in-flight safety instructions.
When the engine on Flight 1380 failed, it fired shrapnel into the fuselage of the aircraft. Additionally, it ripped out one of the windows, meaning that the cabin quickly depressurised. Suddenly, five crew members and 144 travelling passengers were in serious trouble.
Luckily for everyone on board, pilot Tammie Jo Shults was in the cockpit. Shults is an ex-Navy pilot with experience of flying F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. In fact, she even flew as part of Operation Desert Storm during the First Gulf War, although exclusively in a training capacity.
Shults drew on her vast experience to handle the situation. Speaking during an interview for ABC’s 20/20 in May 2018, she said, “My first thoughts were actually, ‘Oh, here we go.’ Just because it seemed like a flashback to some of the Navy flying that we had done.”
This storied pilot didn’t panic under the pressure, working with her co-pilot Darren Ellisor to prevent an accident from turning into a disaster. “We had to use hand signals because it was loud, and it was just hard to communicate for a lot of different reasons,” Shults explained.
Having taken off from New York successfully, the plane was at 32,000 feet when the accident occurred. “We had a very severe vibration from the number-one engine,” Ellisor recalled. “It was shaking everything, and that all kind of happened all at once.”
While Shults and Ellisor reacted to the engine failure in the cockpit, the situation was even more serious inside the cabin. When the window had been torn out by shrapnel, the resulting suction had badly wounded one of the passengers. Jennifer Riordan died of her wounds after she was pulled halfway through the breach.
The other passengers were understandably frightened, especially as the yellow plastic oxygen masks fell from the overhead compartments. At high altitudes, the air pressure makes it very difficult for your body to absorb oxygen. This is because it can’t pass into your bloodstream.
And when someone can’t absorb enough oxygen, it can cause them to lose consciousness. The aircraft was at 32,000 feet when the engine failed, and that means the passengers only had around 30 seconds to put their masks on. After that amount of time, people would begin passing out.
Shults was able to avert this by lowering the plane’s altitude from 30,000 to 10,000 feet. At this level, most people are able to breathe without assistance. And that was very good news for the passengers, as it became apparent that many of them had not listened to the safety instructions.
When a mask drops down from the overhead compartment, you must take the mask and pull it towards yourself. Then, place the mask over your nose and mouth. Lastly, look to help the people next to you, especially any children.
A picture taken by one of the passengers, Marty Martinez, showed that many people had not followed the correct procedure. Of the passengers who had their masks on, the image showed that the masks were only covering their mouths. Their noses, however, were not covered.
It might seem like a small detail, but not covering both mouth and nose with the mask can make a big difference. That’s because it might lead to you not getting enough oxygen. As a result, despite having your mouth covered, you’re still at risk of losing consciousness.
And if even a few passengers are unconscious, it can make evacuating a plane in an emergency much more difficult. They might be blocking other passengers from being able to get out of the seats and into the aisle. Even worse, an unconscious passenger might block the aisle altogether.
While the passengers failed to put on their masks properly, Shults was busy trying to bring the plane down safely. She had already spoken with air traffic controllers about landing at an airport close by. However, she and Ellisor decided to make for Philadelphia instead.
And although the plane was badly damaged, running on one engine and with a gouged hole in the side of the aircraft, the two pilots were able to bring it down safely. They undertook an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Furthermore, they were able to do so without further loss of life.
After passenger Martinez posted the picture of people wearing the oxygen masks incorrectly, it prompted TV host and former flight attendant Bobby Laurie to comment. “People: Listen to your flight attendants,” he wrote on Twitter. “Almost everyone in this photo… today is wearing their mask wrong.”
Passengers were quick to thank their pilots for a sterling effort in the face of very difficult conditions. One of them, Amanda Bourman, even referred to Shults on Instagram as an angel. And the flight crew were subsequently invited to Washington, D.C., to meet President Trump, who praised them for their heroism.
Following the accident, Southwest Airlines has conducted a thorough check on all its existing aircraft. In particular, the airline has been looking for a problem with its planes’ engine blades. That’s because a broken blade is believed to have been the cause of the accident.
Moreover, just weeks later a different kind of accident occurred on another Southwest Airlines aircraft. During that incident, part of one of the windows cracked, startling passengers. However, it was reportedly not a serious problem, and the windows are built to cope with such damage.