Plane part that fell into Bensenville water park flew under radar
A gorgeous summer morning in the 70s guarantees a crowd of ecstatic preschoolers at the Bensenville Water Park when it opens for the day.
Overhead, an ExpressJet Embraer 145 XR is climbing en route from O'Hare to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Unknown to the pilots, the bolts on a piece of exterior equipment called a diffuser or a mixer aren't securely fastened. As the plane nears, a 2-foot-diameter chunk of steel rips off the jet and hurtles down, bouncing off a play structure and plunging into an unoccupied kiddie splash pool.
A few hours difference could have made it a disaster scene instead of an obscure occurrence handled by the Federal Aviation Administration, ExpressJet Airlines and Rolls-Royce, the part manufacturer.
The blunder that occurred July 24, 2014, led to more findings of loose mixers and caused ExpressJet to step up inspections.
Experts say while such occurrences are extremely rare, the incident in Bensenville shows the need for constant vigilance given the what-ifs.
"There was a fair degree of luck involved ... I'm thankful there weren't any kids in the pool," former National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.
"In aviation, every piece of equipment has to be attached correctly. There's very little tolerance for error. It has to be 100 percent all the time; 75 or 80 percent is not good enough," added Hersman, president of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.
The diffuser, a round, wavy steel piece, mixes hot air from the engine exhaust system with air pulled in by the fans. Weighing from five to 10 pounds, the part was attached with eight bolts to ExpressJet's Embraer 145, an FAA report stated.
Only one bolt was found in the mixer after it detached.
So, how did the problem go undetected?
Manufacturer Rolls-Royce installed the mixer during the plane's last major engine overhaul using a modified set of instructions for how it was to be attached. The part had logged 1,035 hours, while the length between inspection periods is 6,000 hours, the FAA said.
The jet was inspected June 26, 2014, but the check didn't include the mixer.
Pool maintenance staff members were the only ones around when the part crashed into the water park.
"They were surprised," Park District Executive Director Rick Robbins said. "It hit one of the water play structures and scraped some paint -- that was it from a damage standpoint. It could have been worse."
Robbins said the park district didn't want to attach a lot of publicity to the occurrence and did not want people to be alarmed. That's why what happened flew under the local radar.
"The FAA jumped on it right away," Robbins said. "We certainly were concerned. We followed through to get as much information as we could. What else can you do? Planes are going to fly over regardless."
The mishap occurred during a summer of intensifying criticism over a new flight pattern at O'Hare using parallel runways landing and departing planes on an east/west path. Flights over Bensenville have shot up with two new runways opening last month and in October 2013.
"Thank God there wasn't an injury," Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto said.
As a result of the mixer toppling from the Embraer, a twin-engine jet that seats 50, Rolls-Royce issued a service bulletin for all planes with the part recommending a "visual inspection of the bolts and nuts that retain the mixer."
ExpressJet ensured all mixers were secure and increased the frequency of inspections, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.
The FAA investigation "had no findings of wrongdoing when it came to ExpressJet's actions," Cory added.
It's hard to quantify parts falling off planes, but, she noted, "it is a very rare event."
Commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights concurred. "An immense team of professionals ensure this is an extraordinary event," he said.
We contacted Rolls-Royce and ExpressJet, but neither business had any comment.
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