Things Falling Off Airplanes is More Common Than You Thought

Over the last two days, engine problems on two airplanes have caused debris to fall into neighborhoods.
Marcia Wendorf
Boeing 777 and the recent debris one left over Colorado1, 2

On Saturday, February 20, 2021, an engine failure onboard United Airlines Flight 328, a Boeing 777-200 flying from Denver International Airport to Honolulu, Hawaii, released debris that rained down on the Denver suburb of Broomfield, Colorado.

A huge engine cowling, estimated to be 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter, fell into the front yard of a home in Broomfield, which is located 40 kilometers (16 miles) northwest of Denver.

Tweets from the Broomfield Police said debris had also landed in Commons Park and the  Northmoor and Red Leaf neighborhoods. The website of the Denver CBS affiliate showed pictures of a Broomfield resident's truck which had been crushed by a piece of debris, and which was parked only 10 feet from that resident's home at the time of the crash.

Another Broomfield resident living in a home in the 13000 block of Sheridan Blvd. was making a sandwich when debris came crashing through his roof and down into his kitchen, landing only two feet from where he was standing.

Tweets posted by those on board Flight 328 showed the terrifying sight of the engine, stripped of its nacelle, or the housing which contains the engine, and shooting fire out its back.

The very next day, on February 21, 2021, CNN reported that two people living in the Sint Josephstraat area of the Dutch town of Meerssen were injured after pieces of the engine of a cargo plane broke off and fell to the ground.

The Boeing 747-400 freighter, which was bound for New York, experienced an engine fire shortly after takeoff from Maastricht, the Netherlands. The plane was diverted to Belgium's Liege Airport, which has a longer runway, and it landed safely.

Besides injuring the two people, one of whom was taken to a hospital, the metal parts also damaged several cars and houses.

In aviation circles, things falling from airplanes is common enough to have their own acronym — TFOA, and we're going to take a look at several other instances of TFOA, and the effects they had.

1. December 2019 - Milton, Massachusetts

Delta Airlines flight 405, a Boeing 767-400 flying from Paris, France to Boston's Logan Airport, was on its final approach when an uninflated evacuation slide fell off. The slide fell into a backyard in the Boston suburb of Milton, knocking branches from several trees.

If they aren't disarmed, airplane evacuation slides are designed to automatically inflate whenever an airplane door is opened. According to Business Insider, flight data showed that the plane was at an altitude of 2,200 feet when it crossed over Milton.

2. May 2012 - Toronto, Canada

Pieces from a Tokyo-bound Air Canada passenger jet carrying 318 passengers and 16 crewmembers fell onto several cars that were parked near Toronto's Pearson Airport.

Much like the Denver incident, the Air Canada Boeing 777 had suffered an engine shutdown, and the plane went on to make an emergency landing at the airport.

Don Enns, the regional manager of air investigations at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, told CBC News that while there was no damage to the front of the plane's engine, that, "I cannot offhand remember an event where we had engine parts falling out of the back of the engine like this."

3. May 2012 - Hallandale Beach, Florida

Also in May 2012, the main cabin door of a private jet, a Canadair CL600, that was traveling from Opa-Locka to Pompano Beach, Florida, came off and landed on a golf course.

The door, with its retractable boarding steps still attached, crashed through trees before coming to rest on the golf course, which luckily, was closed at the time. Following loss of its door, the plane was diverted and landed safely at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

4. November 2010 - Batam, Indonesia

Qantas Flight 32, an Airbus A380, was flying from London to Sydney. After making a stop in Singapore, the plane was taking off from Changi Airport when it suffered an uncontained engine failure in one of its four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines.

The failure occurred four minutes after takeoff when the plane was over Batam Island, Indonesia, and debris from the plane fell onto houses in Batam.

Things Falling Off Airplanes is More Common Than You Thought
Airbus A380. Source: rusm/iStock

An inspection showed that a turbine disc within the engine had disintegrated, damaging the nacelle, one of the plane's wings, the plane's fuel system, landing gear, and its flight and engine controls. The disintegration also caused a fire in one of the plane's fuel tanks, but it self-extinguished.

The accident was the first of its kind for an Airbus A380, which is the world's largest passenger plane, and it led Qantas to temporarily ground the rest of its A380 fleet. The accident also led airlines Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines to replace some of their Rolls-Royce engines, while A380s flown by Air France and Emirates were unaffected because they were powered by engines manufactured by Engine Alliance, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney.

Immediately following the accident, shares of Rolls-Royce Holdings fell up to 10% percent on the London Stock Exchange, while the share price of Airbus also fell, but not as much.

5. November 2010 - Milton, Massachusetts

Milton, Massachusetts sits under the approach path for one of the runways at Boston's Logan Airport. In December 2010, the mangled body of a North Carolina teenager was found on a quiet Milton street.

It is believed that Delvonte Tisdale stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 737 plane that flew from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, North Carolina to Boston's Logan. The boy's shirt and sneakers were found scattered along the plane's flight path and the incident raised security concerns at the Charlotte airport.

6. June 2003 - Gatwick, UK

A couple was taking a stroll through woodland near Britain's Gatwick Airport when part of the 70-pound door from a British Airways Boeing 777 carrying 272 passengers fell 20 feet away from them.

The door had become dislodged right after takeoff, and as The Independent reports, the UK's Air Accidents Investigations Branch found that only one of the 13 catches on the door had been fastened.

7. August 2000 - Los Angeles, California

Shortly after takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 carrying 449 people made an emergency landing after losing several pieces from the aircraft. One piece about the size of a dishwasher was identified as being the exhaust nozzle from one of the plane's four engines.

Air traffic controllers observed the parts falling from the plane and they warned the pilot, who dumped 83 tons of fuel over the Pacific Ocean before returning safely to LAX. The pieces of the aircraft fell onto Dockweiler State Beach

As reported by CBS News, investigators concluded that a large bird must have been sucked into one of the plane's engines, causing its fan blades to become unbalanced and to bang into one another.

8. July 2000 - Paris, France

On July 25, 2000, Air France Flight 4590, a charter flight of the supersonic Concorde, was flying en route from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. In its takeoff run down the runway, the Concorde followed a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had lost a titanium alloy strip that was part of one of its engine's cowl.

Things Falling Off Airplanes is More Common Than You Thought
Air France Concorde. Source: Senohrabek/iStock

The piece was 435 millimeters (17.1 inches) long, 29 to 34 millimeters (1.1 to 1.3 inches) wide, and 1.4 millimeters (0.055 inches) thick. When the Concorde ran over it, it caused one of  Concorde's tires to blow. This sent a 4.5-kilogram, or 9.9-pound, piece of tire traveling at an estimated speed of 140 meters per second (310 mph) into the underside of the plane's left wing.

While the tire debris didn't puncture the fuel tank located in the plane's wing, it did cause a pressure shock wave that ruptured the number 5 fuel tank, and jet fuel gushed out and ignited. In response to a fire warning in the cockpit, the flight engineer shut down engine 2.

Continental DC10 which lost a part
The Continental DC10 that lost a part. Source: Project Kei/Wikimedia Commons

When the fuel tank had ruptured, it sent debris into the Concorde's landing gear bay and this severed power wiring made it impossible to retract the landing gear. The lack of thrust caused by the engine shutoff and drag caused by the landing gear made it impossible for the pilots to control the aircraft.

The Concorde crashed into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel in nearby Gonesse, killing all 109 people onboard the aircraft, and four people in the hotel. An additional six people in the hotel were critically injured.

This crash led to the end of the Concorde's career as one of only two supersonic planes to have been operated commercially; the other one is the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, which operated during the late 1970s. French authorities sought manslaughter charges against Continental Airlines and two of its employees, the mechanic who replaced the DC 10's wear strip and his manager, alleging negligence in the way the repair was carried out.

Continental countered with eyewitnesses who said that the Concorde was on fire before it hit the titanium strip. At the trial in a Parisian court, Continental Airlines was found criminally responsible, fined €200,000 ($271,628), and ordered to pay Air France €1 million.

The mechanic received a 15-month suspended sentence, however, the convictions were overturned by a French appeals court in November 2012. The appeals court did however affirm Continental's responsibility for repaying 70% of the €100 million that Air France had paid out to the families of the victims.

Monument to Concorde crash victims
Monument to Concorde crash victims. Source: oldmancu/Flickr

Today, there is a monument honoring the crash victims at Gonesse. It consists of transparent glass with a piece of an aircraft wing jutting through it. In 2006, another memorial was created at Mitry-Mory, south of the airport. 


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