Emergency Slide Falls Off Plane into Chicago Backyard

July 18, 2023 / 1 Comment


Shortly before touching down at Chicago’s O’Hare International Monday afternoon, the emergency slide on United Flight 12 from Zurich fell uninflated, into the backyard of Patrick Devitt. The Boeing 767 landed without incident and it appears the flight crew was unaware of the mishap. That the emergency equipment was missing was noticed by the maintenance crew and reported.

The emergency slides on Boeing 767s have been a cause of concern since at least 2014 which is when Boeing sent the first of two bulletins to operators notifying them that there was a problem with slides deploying during maintenance and in flight. The FAA followed up in 2015  with a directive that airlines replace valves on the chutes. There was a potential for injury, according to the FAA.

You don’t need to tell that to the flight attendant on Delta Flight 520 who was working a flight from New York to Los Angles which diverted to Salt Lake City for an unrelated maintenance issue about a month ago. Once that problem was resolved and passengers reboarded the 767 to continue on their journey, the rear slide deployed, injuring the flight attendant who was taken to the hospital. Here’s what that looked like to passengers.

Inside Patrick Devitt’s house on Chicago’s north side on Monday,  Devitt’s father-in-law and son were having lunch when they heard a loud bang. Going out into the yard they saw a large lump of silver fabric. Patrick Devitt had returned home by this time and the men moved the slide to the front yard. It was the size of a small car, Devitt said. Chicago Police, the Federal Aviation Administration, and ultimately people from United all arrived to inspect and remove the slide.  The FAA is investigating.

A United spokesperson said the valves of concern to Boeing and the FAA had been replaced on the airplane operating the Zurich to Chicago bound flight, which carried 165 passengers and crew.  But this is not United’s first brush with this kind of event. Around the time of Boeing’s first bulletin, in 2014, a United Boeing 737 made a fast descent and emergency landing after a slide deployed in the back galley at cruise altitude.

The problem is not confined to United or Boeing aircraft. While campaigning for President, the MD-80 chartered by Barak Obama was forced to land when the aft slide inflated in flight.  In 2013, a flight attendant for JetBlue was injured when the forward slide inflated on an Embraer filling the front galley.

As tempting as it might be to make light of the odd situation in which the Devitt men found themselves yesterday – imagine the head scratching and nervous sky-watching that accompanied it –  the blessedly benign nature of what happened belies two worrisome truths. The first is that in spite of some efforts to address the unanticipated deployment of airplane evacuation slides, they continue to pose a threat to airplane occupants and the folks over whom those planes fly.

The second is that if the evacuation slides are opening when they shouldn’t triggering diversions and expedited landings, how confident should air travelers be that in a real emergency, they will open as they should?

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