Passengers Frightened; Safety Board Not Interested

About 25 minutes into JetBlue Flight 1416 from Long Beach, CA, to Austin, TX, the underwing engine on the right side of the Airbus A320 began to overheat. Within moments of the September 19 event, the crew decided to activate the fire extinguishing bottles mounted on the engine and banked for an immediate return to Long Beach.

Afterward, passenger Michelle Settergren shared her experience with the Long Beach Post newspaper:

“I had a window seat, so I was looking out the window. We were flying over downtown and then all of a sudden I started to smell something rank, just awful. The plane started to fill with smoke. Before you knew it, it was just gray and you couldn’t see anything. People were screaming and panicking. All of a sudden you just hear this ‘whoosh’ sound and whatever [jet] motor was running just stopped. I thought, hands down, I was going to die. The pilot got on the intercom and said we had engine failure and we were headed back to Long Beach. That’s it. There was no reassurance that we would be okay. The plane had a lot of turbulence, and people were praying, crying and screaming.”

Passenger Dean Delbaugh recalled, “The fumes were ridiculous. I can still kind of taste them in my mouth.”

Passenger Cynthia Manley said the engine failure was accompanied by a loud ‘boom’ and almost immediately smoke began filling the cabin. The smoke was thick and acidic. “I was breathing through my pillow,” she recounted.

The scene in the cabin of JetBlue Flight 1460

The scene in the cabin of JetBlue Flight 1460

Actor Jackson Rathbone, travelling with his wife and infant son, said, “The oxygen masks did not deploy, but the brave stewardesses came around and manually deployed them.”

The flight attendants had the presence of mind to don portable emergency oxygen masks before working their way down the aisle to manually deploy the “little yellow cups” for the passengers from the overhead service compartments.

The airplane was rocking, Rathbone said, and before touchdown the order came over the public address system to “Brace!” This order was repeated by the flight attendants.

After the airplane came to a halt, the exits were thrown open, and the 147 occupants jumped down the slides.

A few passengers were treated for bumps and bruises. All were bussed to a room at the Long Beach airport where they filled out forms. They were given freebie snacks. Rathbone described the gesture as ” ‘Sorry the engine blew up in mid-flight’ bag of chips.”

While there were no serious injuries, questions abound:

Had the engine demonstrated temperature fluctuations in earlier flights? That day? That week?

What did the engine monitoring system record? Were temperature anomalies being watched by JetBlue maintenance personnel? If so, were they just noting the deviations, or had they already decided to conduct a detailed maintenance inspection of the engine?

If JetBlue maintenance was in the dark about the impending engine failure, what good are state-of-the-art engine health and monitoring programs?

Was the engine shut down before the fire extinguishers were activated? Cabin air is provided by “bleed” air from the engine compressor. Most compressed air is sent straight to the “hot” section of the engine to be mixed with fuel and produce thrust, but some air is diverted before the “hot” section to provide cabin air. Was the foul odor smelled by passengers the telltale of an engine fire, or was part or all of the smell resulting from the fire extinguishing agent?

If the engine was shut down, how did contaminated bleed air get into the cabin? Is it because the engine is still free-wheeling even when shut off?

Most interesting of all, why did some or all of the passengers emergency oxygen masks fail to deploy, requiring flight attendants to work their way down the smoke-filled aisle to manually deploy them? These masks are normally deployed by an electrical switch in the cockpit. Had this switch been activated? If not, was there a breakdown of communication in the cockpit? If the switch had been triggered but the masks still didn’t deploy, this fact would point to an electrical failure. Is the electricity for mask deployment provided solely by the affected engine? If so, where is electrical redundancy.

Lots of issues. No answers likely to come from either JetBlue or Airbus. The National Transportation Safety Board should investigate. The Board is not doing so.

An opportunity to learn, and correct deficiencies, is being lost.