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Whew, that was close

By now you’ve probably heard about the United Airlines plane that suffered an engine failure over Broomfield, Colo., yesterday afternoon and dropped debris on the city.

Not long after that first report, I found a map of the plane’s flight path out of and back to Denver International Airport. It seems it passed almost directly over my house in north Thornton (at best one block north of me) as it headed west. It was only about a minute later that its right engine failed and started dropping debris over Broomfield, including the Broomfield Commons open space, 7 miles due west of here. Two or three years ago my grandson would have been playing soccer there.

Amazingly, there was not a single injury either on the plane or on the ground. The pilots remained calm (don’t they always?), radioed a mayday, and returned to the airport on their one remaining engine.

A bit unnerving, to say the least. I noticed air traffic when I first moved here about 12 years ago, but in recent years only low-flying helicopters have been obvious. Planes westbound from DIA have to climb fast due to noise abatement rules and because they have to get over the Rocky Mountains.

A New York Times story at one point said Broomfield was a Boulder suburb, but obviously that isn’t accurate. They are separate cities, as is seen on this map. I see the story has since been corrected (because I sent a note to the author?), but not the caption on the accompanying video. (I tend to get annoyed when a news source gets its geography wrong when all they had to do was look at a map.)

But all’s well that ends well. The flight was bound for Honolulu, and an engine failure over the ocean might have ended differently. On the ground, one house suffered a punctured roof, and the engine’s front cowling smashed into a man’s truck before stopping within a few feet of his front door. Does auto and home insurance cover stuff falling from the sky?

It’s not obvious here, but this debris hit the truck before coming to rest in the yard. (Broomfield Police Department)


Kirby Klements examines the damage to his truck. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

See follow-up stories at the Denver Post website.



  1. The one expert I saw commenting on this speculated that the cause might be metal fatigue or stress-cracking of rotor blades. When I was working on aerospace batteries that had inconel pressure vessels (up to 1,000 psi), cracking was a major concern. Finding cracks was difficult, and about as much art as science (dye penetrant and X-rays.) On the other hand, it could have been a bird strike or even an encounter with a drone. Wouldn’t surprise me.

    • I saw one expert saying they had to find the rotor blade(s) that failed. I wish them luck with that. Debris is spread over a fairly large area and police are having to stop people from walking away with “souvenirs.” I’m sure NTSB will want every bit of that engine. Another expert pointed out that the most stress those engines ever endure is during takeoff and climb out. That would be the optimum time for metal fatigue to finally fail.

      Drones have certainly proven useful in many situations — but when operated by officials for official reasons. I still think everyday civilians shouldn’t be allowed to have them (of course that ship sailed years ago); so many of those people are irresponsible.

  2. Yes, that was a bit close to you – gotta hope this is an anomaly with the engine failure, rather than a wider problem developing. I confess, when the photo was first posted, i looked for the striped stockings and ruby slippers indicating the WWE – then realized it was real. You mentioned the pilot remaining calm – they train many hours to fly those aircraft under emergency conditions – glad they had good ones in control this time! (and shout out to the controllers who quickly coordinated the emergency through Denver’s busy airspace back to a safe landing).

    • Yep, I imagine air traffic is very heavy around DIA, especially on weekends. Fortunately we had good, clear weather instead of a big storm, and the wind didn’t kick up until later in the day. I could never be a pilot; calm in a crisis is not my forte. That’s one reason I have so much respect for pilots and controllers. I can’t even imagine being thousands of feet up, climbing hard to get over the mountains ahead, going hundreds of miles an hour, with several hundred souls on board — and losing an engine. Hats off to everyone involved.

    • And of course his dad, sister, and I were there to watch him play. I’d have slept so much better without knowing there’s a flight path that goes right over my house. I went out of my way to avoid buying a house near airports and their approach and departure patterns. But things change. As Thornton grew to the north, flight paths were moved to the north to try to lessen the noise complaints. So here we are.

  3. I wondered how far the debris fall was to you. So glad that no one was hurt and no major damage. So so so lucky. Especially that it didn’t happen over the ocean. I saw the video shot by a passenger of the engine still running but in flames. I didn’t read the text with it – I thought it was something old, or some obscure flight/airlines. It wasn’t until later, yesterday evening, that I actually put 2 and 2 together with some tweets about it. Blew me away that was an engine on a United flight taken yesterday on a commercial flight just out of Denver. Everyone, but in air on on the ground, was so lucky.

  4. Very good, informative story. Saw picture online of the engine burning, taken through the passenger window. Having flown alot to holiday destinations in the past I am not sure how I would have felt looking out the window and seeing that. I know for sure my wife would panic and would never fly again. As soon as I saw it was in Colorado I wondered if you might have seen or heard of it. To go over just a block away though is pause for thought.

    • Same as after the first. Sore arm for a day or two. Nothing more. I’ve heard younger people often have more reaction because their antibodies are a lot stronger. Or something like that. My son and daughter-in-law both felt fatigued and “not well” for a day or two after theirs.

  5. Just seen the pictures of the missing blade and broken blade on youtube. Apparently the engines are tested to withstand an engine blade accident and the cowl is nicked by the blade exiting the engine. The wind destroys the rest of the cowling. The plane is designed to run on one engine and can climb away from a take-off on one engine then orbit and land safely. Thought it might put your mind at rest.

    • Thank you. I’m relieved that a.) the plane was designed to fly on one engine if necessary and b.) the pilots were trained to fly with just one engine. I wouldn’t have guessed it could climb out on just one engine, however. Planes are marvelous things.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. ~ Dr. Seuss

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