Local News

Bird strike might have blown out engine in RDU flight

Posted August 9, 2009 10:05 a.m. EDT
Updated August 10, 2009 7:16 a.m. EDT

— A bird strike shortly after take-off might have caused an engine malfunction that forced a pilot to make an emergency landing at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Sunday morning, a Northwest Airlines spokeswoman said.

Shortly after take-off at 8:40 a.m., those on board Flight 1546 to Minneapolis heard a loud boom when an engine blew out, RDU spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said. The captain shut down the left engine and landed safely at RDU at 9:02 a.m., Northwest Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Parker said.

"Whoever was piloting was doing a hell of a job," said Dan Gilvary, who saw the plane pass directly overhead.

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The 148 passengers and five crew members on board were not injured. Passengers were re-scheduled on other flights, Perry said.

Parker said that a bird strike is suspected as the cause of the engine malfunction. The plane will likely receive maintenance work and then go back into service and be flown to Minneapolis.

RDU had six “substantial” incidents of birds striking planes between 1990 and 2007, most recently in June 2002 according to an April report from the Federal Aviation Administration. No one was injured in the collisions.

In January, Hamlin described measures to keep birds away, including setting off fireworks, communication between air-traffic controllers and pilots, and removing birds from RDU property.

Most jet engines are designed to digest birds up to 4 pounds. Thirty-six species of birds weigh more than that, and many fly in flocks.

Witnesses saw flames

Hamlin said that RDU fire crews checked out the plane and saw no signs of a fire. However, a passenger and multiple witnesses told WRAL News that the plane caught on fire.

Rhett Lawson, 14, of Greensboro, was flying to a summer camp. He was sitting in the last row of the plane when he thought he saw an engine blow out.

“A whole bunch of people started screaming, 'Fire.' And I look over, I open my window, and I could see this huge flame coming from the engine,” Rhett said.

Passengers were ordered to get in position to prepare for a crash, and a lot of people on board were praying, he said.

"I just thought, 'This is it. This is not going to end up well,'" Rhett said.

Witnesses said they heard an explosion and saw a low-flying plane on fire over north Raleigh and Falls Lake.

Greg Walker said he heard what sounded "like a Harley Davidson" in his back yard in the Ethan's Glenn subdivision, off N.C. Highway  98. He looked out and saw a plane with flames coming from its front and reaching almost its entire length.

Gilvary and his wife thought they heard a tractor back-firing while they were riding horses. Then in the distance, over the field, they saw a plane on fire. When the plane got closer, he saw flames coming from the left front engine.

"(My wife) was immediately in tears. She said, 'How many people are on that plane?'" Gilvary said. "We thought for sure it could have exploded any second. ... I couldn't believe it didn't blow up."

But the engine was quickly shut off, extinguishing the fire, he said. Three times, the plane drifted to the left, its left wing dipping down, he said.

"Every time, he'd bring it back level," Gilvary said. "We thought, 'Man, what a good pilot.'"

Twenty-two minutes after take-off, Flight 1546 was back on the ground – safe.

"Everyone was clapping at the end and saying, 'Good job.' Everyone was really happy once we landed,” Rhett said.