United 777 Engine Explosion Prompts Bans

After a United Airlines jet rained engine debris over a Denver suburb, some regulators are banning planes with the engine from their airspace.

Video Transcript


CHANCE SEALES: Minutes into a United Airlines flight from Denver to Honolulu, one of the plane's two engines blew apart. Pieces of it fell on neighborhoods below. Thankfully, no one was hurt. None of the 231 passengers, 10 crew members, and no one on the ground, thank goodness. But you can just imagine what could have happened. Newsy's James Packard is with us from Chicago. James, this could have been disastrous. Now regulators are concerned it could happen again?

JAMES PACKARD: Yeah, Chance. Some Boeing 777s around the world with the same engine configuration as the plane you saw in that video are grounded. Some countries banning them from their airspace as investigators scour Broomfield, Colorado for bits of airplane engine that could have clues.

A quiet Saturday in Denver suburbs--


--pierced by the sound of plane parts falling from the sky.

- A piece of it just flew-- just landed right in front of me. It almost landed on my head.

JAMES PACKARD: Thousands of feet overhead, a Boeing 777's right engine was coming apart.

SIMONA DELUCIA: Big noise, big boom, and the first thing I really thought it was a bomb on the plane.

KARLA WHICHARD: All I kept thinking is, this couldn't be my time.

JAMES PACKARD: On board, an eerie quiet.

SIMONA DELUCIA: There were kids on the plane. You don't hear a cry, nothing. It was so weird.

JAMES PACKARD: The pilots working feverishly to get a plane with more than 200 people on board on the ground.

- United 328 heavy, mayday, aircraft just experienced engine failure. Need to turn immediately.

JAMES PACKARD: Video from onboard shows the engine's entire external casing blew off the plane. The NTSB says two fan blades in the engine were at least partially broken.

BRENDA DOHN: No matter where you look it seemed like the ceiling of the plane was just jerking back and forth, too.

JAMES PACKARD: Now, United Airlines is grounding all of its 777s with the same engines. The FAA is mandating swift inspections on all engines of the same type. And Boeing has recommended any of its 777s the Pratt & Whitney engines stay on the ground for now.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: We haven't had a pattern with this airplane and this engine, but the-- but the damage here was severe enough that it really requires everyone to get a quick answer on what happened.

JAMES PACKARD: Already, Japan and the UK have banned planes with the engine from entering their airspace. The incident wasn't even the only one on Saturday. An engine on a 747 cargo jet blew apart over the Netherlands, sending shrapnel raining down on Meerssen. That engine also a Pratt & Whitney, though a slightly different type. Two people were injured but are OK. Remarkably, there are no reports of injuries on the ground near Denver.

DAVID CLEMANS: There can be several hundred people, kids, and families playing soccer. It could have been a lot worse, that's for sure.

JAMES PACKARD: What could easily be called a miracle as investigators try to find out why the engine casing blew to bits.

It's really amazing no one on the ground was injured that is a heavily populated area. These pieces of engine are heavy and, as you saw, they were falling fast from the sky. These planes are designed to be able to fly on one engine, so really, the folks on the ground were the ones more at risk there, Chance.

CHANCE SEALES: James, I know all the data. You know, it's a lot more dangerous to walk across the street or to drive a car, but at the end of the day, these people were supposed to be flying over the ocean. There's nowhere to go. And I know the data, but this is the nightmare for everybody who gets on a plane and flies over the ocean. Do we need, like, 10 engines on a plane as backups?

JAMES PACKARD: In short, no. These airplanes are not only designed to fly on one engine, but this airplane is actually part of a particular class of airplane that can go over the ocean and far, far away from land because these engines specifically are designed to be able to carry this airplane with just one of them back safely to land if this were to have happened over the ocean. It's less likely that that would have happened because there's actually most strain on the engine during the takeoff sequence, which is what was happening in this video.

And I know it doesn't look like it, but the engineering here actually worked, aside from the debris falling on people and neighborhoods. Not because the engine is supposed to fall apart, but because good engineering assumes things are going to go wrong, and when they do it's supposed to mitigate the impacts. There are no apparent major breaches to the actual hull of the airplane itself. And, as you see, that engine stayed attached to the wing of the airplane. That's good engineering at work, assuming things go wrong and mitigating the impact, Chance.