DENVER, CO — One passenger said her first thought was that bomb had gone off, another passenger said it was like being in a shaky elevator.
United Airlines Flight 328 took off Saturday from Denver International Airport, and rained debris on Broomfield and surrounding areas after one of the plane’s engines exploded in flames. Large pieces of the engine casing narrowly missed homes below.
The 231 passengers, who were on their way to Honolulu, reportedly didn’t make a sound after the explosion.
“It was so silent on the plane, like you couldn’t hear a pin drop,” one passenger said in a video posted by the Associated Press. “There were kids on the plane, you didn’t hear crying — nothing.”
Some passengers closed their window shades and began praying.
The explosion, visible from the ground, left a trail of black smoke in the sky.
The aircraft was able to make an emergency landing and, remarkably, no injuries were reported — on the ground or in the plane.
A large engine casing fell into the front yard of a home in Broomfield on Saturday after a plane’s engine exploded. (Broomfield Police Department via AP)
Boeing has recommended that airlines ground all 777s with the type of engine that blew apart — a Pratt & Whitney PW4000. Boeing said there were 69 of the engines in service and another 59 in storage.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson identified the focus on the stepped-up inspections of the hollow fan blades unique to the engine model, which are used solely on Boeing 777s. Dickson’s statement said the conclusion was based on an initial review of safety data and would likely mean grounding some planes.
United had 24 of the planes in service; it is the only U.S. airline with the engine in its fleet, according to the FAA.
Two Japanese airlines have another 32. Japan ordered the planes out of service, according to the financial newspaper Nikkei, while noting that an engine in the same family had trouble in December.
In South Korea, Asiana Airlines grounded nine, seven of which were in service, and Korean Air said it grounded 16 aircraft, six of which are in service.
“We are working with these regulators as they take actions while these planes are on the ground and further inspections are conducted by Pratt & Whitney,” Boeing said in a statement, referring to American and Japanese regulators.
The engine maker said it was sending a team to work with investigators.
The emergency landing this past weekend is the latest trouble for Boeing, which saw its 737 Max planes grounded for more than a year after two deadly crashes in 2019 and is suffering amid the huge reduction in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Max planes began returning to the skies late last year — a huge boost for the aircraft maker, which lost billions during the grounding because it has been unable to deliver new planes to customers.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said that two of the engine’s fan blades were fractured and the remainder of the fan blades “exhibited damage.” But the board cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about what happened.
United says it will work closely with the FAA and the NTSB “to determine any additional steps that are needed to ensure these aircraft meet our rigorous safety standards and can return to service.”
The NTSB said the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were transported to its lab in Washington so the data can be analyzed. NTSB investigations can take up to a year or longer, although in major cases the agency generally releases some investigative material midway through the process.
Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said an engine in the PW4000 family suffered trouble on a Japan Airlines 777 flying to Tokyo from Naha on Dec. 4. The airline has said the plane had engine trouble after takeoff and returned to Naha. An inspection showed damage to the engine case and missing fan blades, according to the airline. Stricter inspections were ordered in response.
Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways will stop operating a combined 32 planes with that engine, Nikkei reported.