When a jetliner’s engine explodes moments before take off, people ask questions. Now, less than a week after that very thing happened to a British Airways 777, answers are starting to emerge—and they’re scary. (See update below.)
Turns out the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned both Boeing and General Electric, the 777’s engine-maker, about a flaw in the plane’s engine design that could result in the very catastrophe that took place last week at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.
What’s worse is that the safety warning was issued over four years ago. The FAA warned that cracks could form in the engine’s high-pressure compressor spool causing “uncontained engine failure and damage to the airplane.” In other words, the FAA knew that the engine’s turbines could fail under stress, causing an explosion and a shower of debris big enough to set the rest of the plane on fire.
That’s exactly what happened to the 777 in Las Vegas. The good news is that the British Airways pilots saved the day by acting fast, extinguishing the fire and slamming on the brakes so that passengers could evacuate should the fire get anywhere close to the fuel tanks in the wings. If that had happened, the entire plane would’ve been engulfed in flames, likely burning up completely in just a few minutes. This almost happened. Miraculously, all 159 passengers and 13 crew members escaped with their lives.
The FAA issued a new airworthiness directive for the 777 engine in question that required additional inspections to spot the cracks before they caused a catastrophic event. It’s so far unclear whether inspectors simply missed seeing a crack or the FAA should’ve required more frequent inspections. Boeing told The Daily Beast that it was “is providing technical assistance to the NTSB,” while GE and the FAA did not respond to comment. Regardless, one thing is clear: Boeing and GE knew about this problem years ago.
Then again, Boeing doesn’t have a super great track record when it comes to using defective parts on planes full of people.
Update 5:30pm: GE finally responded to the controversy and said that the particular engine on the British Airways 777—the GE90-85B—featured a different compressor spool configuration than the engine cited in the FAA airworthiness directive. However, the model name is clearly listed on the FAA’s warning as the GE90-85B, and it remains unclear how the newly configured engine was inspected. We’ve asked GE to clarify and will update this post when we hear back.
The company’s statement is pasted below in full:
The attached Daily Best story is wrong.
The GE90-85B (earlier model version of the GE90 engine that powers the 777) had two different configurations to the compressor spool.
The GE90-85B engine involved in the BA event had GE’s original compressor spool configuration.
A second compressor spool configuration — introduced later — is referenced in the 2011 FAA AD cited in the story – which called for repeated inspections of the spool (consistent with the operating guidance for the original compressor spool).
So, the Daily Beast story is referencing a FAA AD and compressor component that does not relate to the engine in the BA event in Las Vegas.