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The day an engine on his plane blew up

By JIM BUSEK • Jul 23, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Did you happen to see this story from July 9? “In a terrifying incident on Monday, a Delta airplane was forced to make an emergency landing after one of its engines malfunctioned mid-flight. The crew was able to safely land the plane with its 148 passengers, all of whom made it home without a scratch.” A young man on the plane shot some video of the incident with his cellphone. Naturally, the video “went viral” with thousands of people watching the actual meltdown of the offending engine. Almost exactly 30 years earlier a similar thing happened to me. Unfortunately neither the cellphone nor the internet had yet been invented so the closest I came to going viral was running the following story in this newspaper August 11, 1989.

Shortly after takeoff last Thursday, an engine on Eastern Airlines Flight 524 from Mobile, AL to Atlanta, GA blew up.

The front page story in the Mobile Press Register the next day said that “the crew heard a backfiring noise.”

But the passengers on that airplane didn’t hear a backfire. They heard an explosion.

I feel I can speak with some authority on what was heard, since the engine which blew up was about 12 feet from my head.

I hate when that happens.

Actually, it was the first time anything that serious and dangerous had happened to me on an airliner. And I always wondered what it would be like.

It was like this:

The DC-9 went roaring down the runway at full throttle just like always. You could feel when the nose lifted off and heard the thump when the other wheels left the ground. Then there were the usual hydraulic noises from the flaps. Then…

KABOOM! A noise about like an old M-80 firecracker exploding was followed by the kind of grinding mechanical sound which tells you something is disintegrating.

“S-word,” I said involuntarily.

“Head flight attendant to the front,” was the terse message over the intercom.

Oh great, I thought, now comes the part where they tell you to assume the crash position: bend over in your seat, grab your ankles and prepare to kiss your butt goodbye.

Instead, the pilot came on the intercom and said: “We have lost an engine and will be turning back. There shouldn’t be any problem, but be sure your seat belts are fastened low, and you should snug them down a little bit.”

Typical pilot understatement, I thought. If there is no problem, why are we snugging. And why are all those fire trucks waiting along the runway?

It was very quiet in the plane at that point. They shut down the offending jet engine, but not to worry … there was one left on the other side, humming smoothly as we banked back toward Mobile. You could see people anxiously looking at the emergency exits. Many people were praying.

There was a bit of a gasp when the passengers saw the fire trucks waiting for us, but our touchdown was gentle. As we rolled to a stop, there was applause, but not from me. I was just taking it all in.

As we disembarked, friends and relatives told the story as it appeared to them from the ground: They saw a big flame erupt from the right engine and heard the boom a couple of miles way. So much for the simple “backfiring noise” allegedly heard by the crew.

Anyhow, then started the lines and hassle which always accompany an airport screw-up. But the usual boredom was modified by the Mobile TV people filming and interviewing those of us who wanted to talk. I didn’t, but I made sure I got in front of the camera a couple of times so my friends in Mobile would see me on the evening news.

The DC-9 we were on was dead. And there were no more flights out that night. So Eastern paid for my motel room and gave me a ticket on the first flight Saturday morning.

That meant I had to get up at 4 a.m. But there’s nothing like an exploding jet engine to make you appreciate the privilege of waking up on yet another beautiful morning.

 

Jim Busek is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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