The NTSB continues to probe what went wrong on Oct. 28 when an American Airlines 767 jet caught fire at O'Hare International Airport. A lot, however, went right.
It started with the Flight 383 pilots conducting their regular preflight safety briefing, so familiar they could do it in their sleep. Among their decisions was who makes the call to abort in the unlikely event of a problem.
Meanwhile, flight attendants ran their standard checks. Is the emergency slide pressure right? Is the door pressure right? Are the jump seats good to go? Are the defibrillators working, and are the flash lights in place?
Everything looked perfect, and the Miami-bound aircraft accelerated down the runway. Near 147 mph, a heavy steel-alloy disc inside the jet engine shattered, scattering pieces across the airfield. One ripped into the right wing, where fully loaded fuel tanks were located, starting a fire.
Within seconds, a pilot aborted the flight, stopped the plane on Runway 28-Right and got on the radio with air traffic controllers.
"Do you see any smoke or fire?" he asked.
"Yeah, fire off the right wing," a controller replied matter-of-factly.
Already, flight attendants had morphed into drill sergeants barking out commands to the 161 passengers: Leave everything behind. Come this way. Move. Jump and slide.
"An aircraft cabin can become engulfed in flames in a matter of seconds," said Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants international president. "Our job is to get everyone off before we get off."
Within three minutes of getting the call, Chicago Fire Department crews stationed at O'Hare, who coincidentally had trained for such an emergency that same day, were spraying foam on the plane's right wing.
For firefighters to get there fast, a ground stop halting landings and departures was implemented at O'Hare so trucks could cross runways.
Behind the scenes, an army of air traffic controllers pivoted from normal routines to divert dozens of flights.
O'Hare tower controllers instructed approaching pilots to go around the airport. Controllers at the Elgin and Aurora traffic control centers, which handle midrange and long-distance flights, troubleshot a ballooning number of aircraft converging on the country's second-busiest airport.
The fire was extinguished. Twenty passengers were treated for minor injuries and released. O'Hare returned to normal.
For passengers such as Hector Cardenas of Chicago, normal is difficult. He can't sleep and feels nauseous thinking about the fire and smoke.
"It was an experience I hope I won't endure again," said Cardenas, a business traveler who now fears flying. "What can you do? I'm trying to work with that."
American Airlines President Robert Isom sent employees a message Thursday: "You all showed us the heart and soul of our airline, and reminded us that we truly have the best people in the industry."
"That crew did textbook work," Nelson said. "It reminds the whole country we're not there to serve Cokes. We're there as first-responders."
You should know
The National Transportation Safety Board on Friday said it was focusing on a "Stage 2 high-pressure turbine disk" engine part that broke into four pieces just before takeoff.
One piece hit a UPS facility 2,900 feet away, and others scattered around the airfield.
Lab tests indicate fatigue cracks in the disk.
"They're very lucky (the part) didn't come into the cabin and hit someone," said Michael Burgener, Southern Illinois University associate professor of aviation technologies.
Attached to a rotating shaft and holding turbine blades that move air, the disk is built to withstand heat reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Under continual stress, it drives a compressor that squeezes air, sending it to a combustion chamber where fuel is introduced and burned.
Officials said the disk had 10,984 cycles out of its life limit of 15,000.
The disk was "well within its life limit," said Burgener, who is chairman of the SIU Aviation Technologies Department. "But it may have developed a fatigue crack, which caused it to fail catastrophically."
Causes could include a tiny imperfection when the part was forged or an engine start situation where temperatures exceeded normal limits.
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