It’s Not Always a Smoking Hole

By Debbie Hersman

Delta Airlines 757

Last week, the NTSB sent a team of investigators to Atlanta to investigate a Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 that experienced an engine fire shortly after take-off.  The captain, who noticed the problem just as the airplane climbed past 3,000 feet, made a successful single-engine landing and the 170 passengers evacuated via the airplane’s emergency slides. 

Most people associate the NTSB with catastrophic plane crashes—ones where numerous people are killed and the aircraft is destroyed.  Photos of our investigators at accident scenes that are  referred to as “smoking holes” are becoming rare when it comes to commercial operations  Fortunately, the event in Atlanta last week was far from a tragic scenario.  In fact, when the evacuation was completed, there were only three minor injuries. 

So, why did NTSB send a team to Atlanta?  Commercial carriers must report to the NTSB any uncontained failures or fires like this one. Our investigators want to find out what happened with that engine so that in the future, they won’t have to investigate the same kind of failure resulting in a smoking hole.  Right now, we have no idea what we will find.  The engine fire may have been the consequence of a design flaw, a manufacturing glitch, or a maintenance discrepancy that could occur again.  And, another occurrence may not end as well.

Our investigators routinely investigate these kinds of events.  Right now, we are investigating why an Airbus 320 experienced an electrical failure in the cockpit right after take-off from New Orleans in April. We are also looking at a Boeing 757 that ran off the runway in Jackson Hole last December.  Neither of these events resulted in fatalities or catastrophic aircraft damage, but they still have a very important safety story to tell.  These investigations are the best ones we do, because they keep us from being called to another smoking hole.

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