When a door explosion killed 9 people mid-flight

When a door explosion killed 9 people mid-flight

Investigators inspect United Airlines Flight 811 on February 26, 1989.
Paul Skouma/Associated Press

  • A door seal on an Alaska Airlines plane exploded in mid-air on Friday. No one was killed.
  • The last time a door exploded mid-flight on an American flight was on United Airlines Flight 811.
  • Nine passengers were ejected from the plane when the fuselage tore apart.

It was like a plane passenger’s worst nightmare.

A door plug on an Alaska Airlines plane exploded mid-flight over the weekend, forcing the plane to turn around and land.

The cabin was damaged but no one was seriously hurt.

But nine passengers were not so lucky the last time a plane door broke on a US flight more than three decades ago.

In the early morning hours of February 24, 1989, Flight 811 was flying from Honolulu, Hawaii to Sydney, Australia with a stop in Auckland, New Zealand.

While the Boeing 747-122 was still ascending from Honolulu, it suddenly shook loudly at 22,000 to 23,000 feet in the air, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Seconds later, the cargo door ripped off toward the front of the plane, taking a huge piece of the fuselage with it and leaving a large gap in the cabin and cargo area, according to the FAA.

The Associated Press reported that nine passengers in that part of the plane were ejected into the night sky. At least one of them was sucked into the engine.

“I was trying to sleep when I heard a hissing sound,” passenger Gary M. Garber told the New York Times at the time. “It took about three or four seconds and I looked at my wife next to me. Suddenly it exploded, and I could tell that three or four rows of people on the right side of the plane had exploded.”

“There was about 18 inches between me and the open air,” he said.

“There was this huge explosion, the plane crashing down and down,” passenger Solene Caudwell told the Rotorua Daily Post decades later, in 2018. On the side of the plane.”

Two inspectors look at badly damaged United Airlines Flight 811 at Honolulu Airport, February 26, 1989.
AP

CBS News reported that the explosion led to the fall of Laura Brentlinger, the best flight attendant, who was holding the spiral metal staircase inside the Boeing 747-122.

“I was hanging on the steps, my feet were off the ground, hanging in the air,” Brentlinger said. Brentlinger and the other flight attendants returned to safety and worked quickly to protect the other passengers on the plane.

“I remember yelling to my flying partner, ‘We’re supposed to show trust,'” she told CBS News. “How can I show confidence when I’m scared to death?”

The pilots were able to turn the plane around and make an emergency landing in Honolulu at a speed much higher than normal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“When we started seeing the lights of Honolulu, I knew it was going to be okay, and by then we were in a controlled descent,” Caudwell told the Rotorua Daily Post. “I stood up and ran as fast as anyone could run, and when I looked back I couldn’t believe the size of the hole in the plane. You could have driven three cars through it.”

Two US Coast Guard crew members unload an interior piece of United Airlines Flight 811 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
AP

As federal investigators investigated the disaster, the parents of a passenger wanted answers. The Seattle Times reported that Kevin and Susan Campbell launched an investigation into the explosion, examining photos and thousands of pages of technical documentation.

A Boeing engineer later said at a hearing that Boeing had been aware of flaws in the design of the door lock mechanism years earlier, according to the Times.

Although Boeing warned airlines not to reinforce its doors with additional aluminum, United found no defects in its doors and did not initially make repairs, the Times reported.

“Robert Doll, United’s vice president of engineering, said at the hearing that United did not believe the locks posed enough of a risk to justify the cost of repairing its entire fleet immediately,” the Times reported.

The NTSB ultimately determined that faulty wiring and an electrical short caused the door to open — but it also found that the design of the door mechanism was flawed and that Boeing, the airlines and the FAA did not move quickly enough to fix the problem. .

“There were numerous opportunities for the manufacturer, the airline and the FAA to take actions during the service life of the Boeing 747 that would have prevented this accident,” the NTSB reported.

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