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The United Airlines engine that failed broke years ahead of its next inspection.

  • March 05, 2021

An airplane engine fan blade that broke during a United Airlines flight last month had thousands of flights remaining before it was due for a federally mandated inspection, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Friday.

The Pratt Whitney engine containing that blade caught fire and shed debris over homes minutes after the plane departed Denver for Honolulu on Feb. 20. The pilots turned the plane around and returned to the Denver airport. The failure, similar to an incident in Japan in December and one on another United plane in 2018, forced regulators and airlines around the world to ground more than 120 Boeing 777 planes powered by that particular engine family, the PW4000-112.

The Federal Aviation Administration ordered immediate inspections of the fan blades in those engines. United, which has more than 50 such planes, was the only American airline affected by that order. The tests, known as “thermal acoustic inspections,” are conducted by Pratt Whitney and involve bombarding the blades with pressure, which heats them, and then looking for temperature abnormalities that could point to internal cracks.

Early evidence suggests that one of the engine’s fan blades fractured during the flight last month and struck and broke another, according to the N.T.S.B., which is investigating the failures. That first blade had flown about 3,000 flights since Pratt Whitney last subjected it to a thermal acoustic inspection, far short of the 6,500-flight threshold at which blades are regularly inspected using the technique.

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