Searchers in a remote area of New Mexico early Wednesday found the jet engine that plunged 35,000 feet Tuesday from an American Airlines Boeing 727 that was en route to San Diego from Dallas.
The plane, minus one of its three engines, proceeded to a safe landing at Lindbergh Field 45 minutes after the incident. There were no injuries to the 81 passengers and nine crew members aboard.
Linda Jones, spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the engine was found at 9:20 a.m. in a "very remote" area 26 miles east of Deming, N.M. It will be taken to the airline's maintenance headquarters in Tulsa, Okla., where a piece by piece examination will be made.
"Our Washington investigators will take a look at it and find exactly what happened," Jones said.
Search crews found the engine after following the aircraft's flight pattern and plotting it against the time the pilot called air traffic control in Albuquerque, N.M., reporting engine trouble.
The flight crew knew the No. 3 engine had stopped functioning after the plane suddenly shuddered while flying over Deming but they did not realize it had ripped from the plane. The engines of a 727 are near the tail and not visible to the crew. The pilot and crew did not learn the engine had fallen from the plane until they reached San Diego.
Airline spokesman Joe Stroop said the pilot brought the plane down from 35,000 feet to 26,000 feet as a precaution but that the crew and passengers were in no danger.
"The airplane was functioning normally, the weather was fine and there was no reason for them not to continue to San Diego," Stroop said in explaining why the pilot decided not to make an emergency landing at nearby Phoenix. "We are very pleased with the performance of the captain and the aircraft (in getting) all our passengers to their destination safely."
Tom Cole, spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplane Co., said the 727 is designed so that when an engine suddenly fails, it will cleanly "break away" from the fuselage.
"When an engine stops suddenly, its momentum, its torque, may damage the structure of the plane," Cole said. "Our engines are designed to shear . . . away."
Passenger John Stamps said he heard a "big explosion that made the plane shake badly at least four or five times" about an hour after the plane left Dallas.
"It felt like we collided with something," he said.
He said the pilot came on the intercom a few minutes later and told the passengers there was a problem with an engine and that it was being checked out.
After conferring with the air traffic control center in Albuquerque, the pilot decided to continue to San Diego.