United Airlines passengers brace for impact after engine cover rips off during flight

Passengers on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Honolulu experienced a scare in the air Tuesday.

According to photos and video from people on board, it appears the cowling, or cover, fell off one of the engines.

Passengers tell us it all at started 40 minutes before they were about to land.

“We heard a really loud bang and the right engine went. It was a lot of smoke,” said passenger Holly Lynch.

“The engine right where we were sitting, which would have been on the right side of the plane, was completely blown,” said passenger Karyn Dove-Mitchell.

Passengers tell us the plane shook violently, descended, and slowed down.

“I grabbed (my son) Jack, and I put him in the seat and I buckled him in, and he started crying and then it was nonstop shaking,” said passenger Lori Shanks.

“Every once in a while it started tipping so I had some fears about that,” said passenger Kathleen Clifford. “I turned on my phone. I took this video, and at the end, I told my family I love them.”

The crew instructed passengers to prepare for an emergency landing.

“They made everybody practice the emergency thing at the end. We had to sit down. We had to be down with our heads down, holding our ankles when we landed,” Clifford said.

Passengers were tucked in their seats with their heads bent, chanting “Brace, brace, brace!” Cheers erupted as the plane landed at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. No one was hurt.

Everyone we spoke to say the crew did an amazing job. Passengers applauded the pilot for a smooth landing. Some shook his hand and even gave him a hug as they exited the plane.

“It was one of the best landings I ever had,” said Lynch.

“There was some anxiety from everyone, including the crew, but they handled themselves very professionally,” said Dove-Mitchell. “I’m just thankful we made it to land and we didn’t have to do an emergency water landing.”

We’re told passengers did not need to use air masks or their life vests during the ordeal.

United Airlines issued the following statement: “United flight 1175 traveling to Honolulu from San Francisco landed safely after the pilots called for an emergency landing because of a loss of the engine cowling (the covering of the engine). Our pilots followed all necessary protocols to safely land the aircraft. The aircraft taxied to the gate and passengers deplaned normally.”

We’re still pressing the airline for more information regarding its maintenance and safety protocols.

A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation issued the following statement: “This afternoon United Airlines flight 1175 reported a mechanical issue en route to HNL. The plane landed safely with Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting (ARFF) personnel standing by as a precaution. The plane has been taken to the hangar. There is no impact on airport operations or runways.”

A closer look at the engine shows a missing blade in the fan.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.

According to a spokesman: “United flight 1175, a Boeing 777 from San Francisco to Honolulu, declared an emergency due to a vibration in the right engine. The plane landed on Runway 8R without incident around 12:40 p.m. local time. The FAA will investigate.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is sending two investigators, who are expected to arrive Wednesday night. It is also working with United Airlines to get the flight data and cockpit voice recorders sent to its lab.

While it’s still too early to tell exactly what happened, experts tell us this type of incident doesn’t happen often and pilots aren’t trained for this specific scenario.

“When something like this happens, you don’t know what kind of secondary damage happened when the cowling flies off the engine. It does make for some tense moments,” said aviation expert Peter Forman. “What the pilot is looking for is how this event will affect the range of plane, because there is more drag. You’re wondering if there’s any fuel lines that were damaged. I think that’s why they want fire trucks to come out after it lands, just to make sure it’s not dripping any fuel. Those are the kind of things pilots are looking for. Looks like the crew will handle it fine.”

Forman says despite the scare, passengers weren’t in any real danger.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says crisis scenarios are exactly what flight attendants train for.

“I just went through this training again a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “I imagine everything those flight attendants were doing in that moment. Their training really kicks in, and that’s what you heard from the passengers, that they did an incredible job prepping people for what is probably the most stressful moments of their lives.”

Nelson says the San Francisco-based crew flies the Honolulu route regularly, and is well versed with one another, as well as the flight crew.

She also says today’s incident illustrates why passengers need to do their job also by listening to safety briefings and following instructions.

“We’re charged for the safety health and security of the passengers in our care,” Nelson said, “and we think about that from the moment we get to work. Luckily most passengers every day of the year don’t have to think about that. This is still the safest mode of transportation in the world, and that played out again today because well-trained crews made it that way.”

We’ve learned the same plane was involved in another incident eight years ago. In 2010, turbulence forced the crew to make an emergency landing. Flight 967 from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles landed in Denver. More than two dozen people were hurt.

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