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What do you call it when a jet engine 'explodes' but the plane doesn't?
August 7, 2014 3:40 PM   Subscribe

In 2001, I was on a passenger jet that made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff. Right around the time we would have reached 10,000 feet, there was an "explosion" (I think?) in one of the engines. After landing, the pilot told us what it was, but I can't remember. Help me remember the term?

It was an American Airlines jet flying from Dallas to Sacramento, so I'm fairly certain it was a Boeing 7-series jet. (Hi Dad!) Engines were at the rear of the plane. I was about three rows up from the back of the plane, on the opposite side of the engine in question. There was a very loud, explode-y sound, and then there was smoke coming from the engine.

We had been climbing, but as soon as the bang happened we began descending. They got it under control after a minute and we leveled off, then circled in a holding pattern until they could shut down enough of DFW for us to land safely without blowing anyone else up.

They did not dump fuel, either because we were over a heavily populated area or because that plane dumps fuel from the back of wings, and therefore would have been spraying fuel into an engine that was maybe on fire. (I've heard both explanations.)

After an extremely g-force-intensive landing (I now know first-hand why it's not a good idea to land a plane that is heavy with jet fuel), firefighters in mylar suits sprayed the engine with foamy stuff that I assume was a flame retardant. We then taxied to a gate.

As this whole ordeal ended, the pilot finally came over the PA and told us what had happened. (He didn't say a word during the whole thing, which... well, I have opinions about that.) I thought what he called it was a "compression burst." Googling "compression burst" makes me think I must be misremembering, because there doesn't seem to be such a thing.

Any ideas what might have happened? A long time back I looked through FAA or NTSB incident reports -- don't remember which -- and couldn't find anything. Curiosity has nagged at me over the years.
posted by mudpuppie to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, and by the way, this was on September 10, 2001. I was prepared to write an angry letter to American the next morning, but it turned out not to be a good day for that.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:40 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]


That sounds like a compressor stall to me. And the most likely rear engine plane would be a McDonnell Douglas MD-80.
posted by ambrosen at 3:47 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


compression burst

Do you mean, perhaps, "Compressor Stall" ?

(He didn't say a word during the whole thing, which... well, I have opinions about that.)

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. In that order. I understand it is frustrating, but, you know, it's not like he was having tea and crumpets up there either.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:48 PM on August 7 [21 favorites]


MD-80s can't dump fuel, either, for what it's worth. Most twin jets can't.
posted by ambrosen at 3:50 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


The MD-80 family, whatever MD they were up to by that point, turned into 717s after Boeing bought Douglas.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:51 PM on August 7


According to Wikipedia and Boeing, the 717 was the rebadging of the MD-95.

For what it is worth, AA was still operating 727s in 2001.
posted by Good Brain at 3:57 PM on August 7


After such a seemingly prescient experience, I would be completely dismayed to find it was not even a 'notable stall occurrence'.
posted by Anitanola at 4:00 PM on August 7


Was it a "contained engine failure"? Or, possibly (but less likely) an "un-contained engine failure"?
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:06 PM on August 7


Compressor surge or compressor stall is what it sounds like to me. There's a good Youtube video about them here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQWYhsYfMxE
posted by FishBike at 4:47 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


The answer is definitely compressor stall.

We had been climbing, but as soon as the bang happened we began descending. They got it under control after a minute and we leveled off, then circled in a holding pattern until they could shut down enough of DFW for us to land safely without blowing anyone else up.

Just to fill in some details here: as soon as the bang happened, the pilot likely stopped the climb, which does not mean the plane started descending (but probably felt that way given the high climb rates of the MD-80's, if that's what it was). The plane is "under control" during this whole process. The holding pattern is to give the pilots of your plane time to shutdown the offending engine (if necessary) and to reconfigure the aircraft for landing rather than climb. An engine out is a significant event but it's not a crisis, and it pays to be methodical when dealing with it and the subsequent landing.

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. In that order.

Definitely.
posted by kiltedtaco at 4:47 PM on August 7 [6 favorites]


Thanks folks. The YouTube video explains what happened very well -- and also explains why it was so loud and why there was smoke. (I didn't see flames, for which I'm grateful.)

I retract my comment about the pilot not saying anything, but I remain convinced that an announcement from someone reassuring us that things were under control would have made it a much less traumatic experience. It didn't help that as we circled the airport, we could see fire engines and ambulances racing out to the area.

Thanks for the explanations!
posted by mudpuppie at 5:11 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I could not find a record of this in the FAA Incident database. At least nothing matching in Texas in all of September 2001. "Incidents" are a broader category than the "accidents" that show up in NTSB investigations. But perhaps something as simple as what you experienced doesn't qualify as an incident that requires reporting.
posted by Nelson at 8:47 AM on August 8


Yeah, Nelson. I looked for it shortly after it happened and couldn't find anything either.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:06 AM on August 8


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