On February 20, 2021, a United Airlines jet engine fire forced a commercial flight to make a harrowing emergency landing at Denver International Airport. According to media reports, debris from the Boeing 777-200 operating as United Airlines Flight 328 rained down from the sky and landed in a residential area below. Fortunately, no one on the ground was injured.
The engine fire occurred shortly after the Boeing 777 departed from Denver on its way to Honolulu. According to media reporting, 231 passengers and 10 crew members were aboard the plane, which made the emergency landing at approximately 1:29 p.m. local time. No physical injuries were reported among the passengers or crew members aboard Flight 328.
United Airlines Engine Fire Investigation Updates - Click here for the last update on Mar. 8, 2021
In the aftermath of the United engine explosion, fire and emergency landing, Boeing recommended that airlines stop flying the 777 models equipped with Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engines while the Flight 328 investigation continued. Boeing noted in a statement that 69 of the 777 model planes in service across the globe are powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.
Following Boeing’s recommendation, airlines in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan grounded Boeing 777s with Pratt & Whitney engines in their fleets. United Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, and All Nippon Airways all fly Boeing 777s with Pratt & Whitney engines.
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“Passenger safety should not depend on luck. Although fan blades should never let go, the engine is supposed to contain the debris if one breaks off, causing all kinds of dangerous shrapnel. All of that is supposed to stay in the engine nacelle. When the debris leaves the nacelle, it is pure luck that something is not hurled into the airplane’s cabin. That luck ran out in Southwest Flight 1380 where one person died. Fortunately, the luck held for United 328.” - - Board-Certified Trial Attorney Ronald L. M. Goldman
Pratt & Whitney Engine Fire Forces Emergency Landing in Denver
Passengers aboard United 328 recalled the harrowing incident taking place just before the airliner reached cruising altitude. The flight captain was giving an announcement over the PA system when an explosion shook the cabin.
United Airlines #UA328, a Boeing 777-222 (N772UA) suffered an engine failure after takeoff from Denver, Colorado, USA.— Aviation Safety Network (ASN) (@AviationSafety) February 21, 2021
The aircraft safely landed back at Denver.https://t.co/PEXTmVaVVA pic.twitter.com/cjVpNC0hEk
A passenger seated near the plane’s right wing captured video footage of the #2 engine engulfed in flames and vibrating violently. The flight captain immediately issued a mayday call and turned the plane around.
“When it initially happened, I thought we were done,” said passenger David Delucia, who was seated on the left side of the plane with his wife. “I thought we were going down.”
Mr. and Mrs. Delucia grabbed their wallets and put their driver’s licenses in their front pockets so they could be identified if the plane crashed.
Broomfield Residents Fearful as Debris Rains Down from the Sky
Kirby Klements of Broomfield was in his house when he and his wife heard a loud ‘boom.’ Seconds later, they saw a large piece of debris fly past their window and land in the cab of Klements’ pickup truck, crushing part of the vehicle. The debris landed 10 feet away from the house. “If anyone would have been in the truck, they would have been dead,” Klements said.
Various debris—from a massive circular engine cowling to insulation—landed in Broomfield, a suburb roughly 25 miles from Denver. While no injuries were reported, the in-flight incident resulted in the destruction of property.
What Caused the United Airlines Flight 328 Engine Failure?
Investigators from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the United Airlines engine failure. Initial findings suggest that two fan blades from the Pratt & Whitney PW4077 engine on the plane’s right wing fractured in the incident. An early theory is that one of the blades suffered a fatigue crack which caused it to break away, and it then took out another blade. According to NTSB officials, the remaining fan blades showed damage "to the tips and leading edges."
A full report on the cause of the United Airlines Flight 328 incident could take months to complete.
Boeing 777 Aircraft Involved in Similar Incident
The Flight 328 incident is not the first time that a United-operated Boeing 777 has experienced this type of engine failure. Three years ago, United Airlines Flight 1175 was on its way from San Francisco to Honolulu when the plane’s #2 engine failed. Much like the United 328 incident, frightened passengers looked out their windows to see a bare engine missing its cowling.
United Flight 1175 made an emergency landing in Honolulu. One of the passengers later recalled it was the “scariest flight of [her] life.”
The Boeing 777 involved in the 2018 United incident was also powered by Pratt & Whitney engines. The NTSB report found that Pratt & Whitney failed to provide a formal program for training its inspectors responsible for examining the engine’s fan blades.
Another Boeing Aircraft Made Emergency Landing on Same Day as United Flight 328
On the same day as the United Airlines engine fire in Colorado, a Boeing 747 cargo plane in the Netherlands experienced engine failure. The incident also caused debris to fall from the sky above the town of Meerson. Two people on the ground, including a child, sustained injuries in that incident.
According to CNN, the cargo plane was powered by a Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engine.
United Airlines Engine Fire Investigation Updates
March 8, 2021 | Lawsuit Alleges Negligence Caused United Airlines Engine Fire– A passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 328 has filed a lawsuit against the airline alleging negligence caused the engine fire, which resulted in serious emotional distress. According to the United Airlines lawsuit, the company failed to adequately inspect fan blades on the Pratt & Whitney engines.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued its preliminary report on the UA328 investigation. Per the report, investigators found “multiple fatigue fracture origins” on a fan blade. The blade, which has “fractures consistent with fatigue,” has been sent to Pratt & Whitney.
March 6, 2021 | NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on UA328 Engine Fire– The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its preliminary report today on its investigation into the United Airlines engine fire over Colorado. The biggest news concerns the plane’s right engine, which, according to the report, contains a fan blade with “multiple fatigue fracture origins.”
At least one engine fan blade tore off during the flight due to what appears to be “metal fatigue.” In the process, the fan blade that broke away took out at least one other fan blade, a scenario referred to as an uncontained engine event.
Fan blades are supposed to be checked over using fluorescent penetrant inspection and thermal acoustic imaging. In the wake of the UA328 engine fire, the NTSB ordered all planes using the same Pratt & Whitney engine models to be analyzed using fluorescent penetrant inspection and thermal acoustic imaging.
United had a similar incident in 2018 when the same model aircraft with the same Pratt & Whitney engines sustained an uncontained engine event after a fan blade broke away due to metal fatigue.
Below are some of the highlighted facts released in the NTSB’s preliminary report:
- An initial examination of the right engine found that fire damage was primarily contained to the engine’s accessory components, thrust reverser skin, and composite honeycomb structure of the inboard and outboard thrust reversers.
- The spar valve, a component that stops fuel flow to the engine when the fire switch is pulled in the cockpit, was found closed. Per the report, there was no evidence of a fuel-fed fire.
- All fan blade roots were in place in the fan hub.
- One fan blade was fractured roughly 7.5 inches above the base at the trailing edge, with the fracture surface consistent with fatigue.
- The second fractured blade showed signs of overload failure, consistent with secondary damage.