A Southwest Airlines plane was forced to make an emergency landing at Denver International Airport on Sunday morning after its engine cowling tore off during takeoff from the airport.

Boeing Airplane Missing Panel

Just before 8 a.m., flight 3695 started its journey from Denver to William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, with 135 passengers and six crew members on board, when the metal engine covering detached from the Boeing 737-800 plane. Photos provided to The Denver Post by passenger John Vahlenkamp show much of the engine’s components exposed under the plane’s wing, with the metal covering ripped from the top.

Viral videos from other passengers depict the damage in real time. The cowling hangs off of the right engine as the plane speeds down the runway before ripping off entirely, according to posts on social media platform X.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the flight returned around 8:15 a.m. “after the crew reported the engine cowling fell off during takeoff and struck the wing flap.” The plane was then towed to the gate. The federal agency plans to investigate, a spokesperson said on Sunday afternoon.

A Southwest spokesperson referred to the incident as “a mechanical issue.” Passengers were put on a different plane before arriving in Houston three hours behind schedule, according to the statement.

Maintenance teams are now reviewing the damaged aircraft, which is nine years old, the FAA registry reports. Financial services corporation Nasdaq places the average age of Southwest’s fleet at about 12 years old.


Vahlenkamp, who sat on the left side of the plane, said the flight started out uneventfully until he felt “what I thought was turbulence” during takeoff.

“The plane shook a little bit left and right,” he said. Then, he was hit with a “rollercoaster feeling.”

Vahlenkamp noticed the plane wasn’t lifting as normal. Then, the pilot told the passengers on the intercom that the flight was heading back to the airport.

Vahlenkamp remembers an air of calm on the flight, with other customers and crew members remaining collected. After looping around, the pilot informed his passengers that the landing would be faster and harder than usual, said Vahlenkamp, who works as the senior editor of the Boulder Daily Camera.

“Everyone applauded and cheered after we landed,” he said. The pilot thanked passengers who brought the problem to the crew’s attention, Vahlenkamp added.

“I felt safe the entire time,” he said on the phone, during his layover in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Dallas. “If it’s going to happen, it’s nice to turn around and land safely back to the airport.”

Denver airport officials referred requests for comment to Southwest. Boeing didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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