Flight Attendant Sucked Up Into Flap
Learning from the Comet disasters, aircraft designers made windows smaller and rounded, and avoided having points where stress would concentrate. They also used cross-plinths to prevent any failure from spreading like a failed zip fastener.
In the 737, Boeing designed the fuselage so that in the event of a failure, a “structural flap” would open to release the cabin air without destroying the structure. Pictures of the Aloha jet with passengers sitting in the open as if on an open-top sightseeing bus received much publicity.
Used for inter-island hops, the 18-year old Boeing 737 had 89,680 cycles to its credit, or rather debit. Dividing the number of hours it had been airborne by that number, the average flight time worked out as 25 minutes. Only one other 737 in the world had as many cycles.
Admittedly, the impact of these cycles on the structure was theoretically less than usual in that the short distances meant the maximum height reached was less than it would normally be. However, this “plus” was negated by the fact that the aircraft was operating and parked in the warm, salty and humid environment associated with the Hawaiian Islands.
Furthermore, the airline operated within tight financial margins, and extracted the most from its geriatric fleet by doing important fuselage checks piecemeal overnight, it being imperative to have the aircraft back in the sky early the next day.
Some operations such as checking rivets and the bonds holding the fuselage together require not only very diligent and tedious work, but also the setting up of gantries and safety harnesses if upper parts of the fuselage are to be checked safely, and all that limits the effective inspection time. Perhaps worst of all, workers suffering from upset sleep rhythms can very easily miss defective areas.
On boarding in the good light of the early afternoon, one of the passengers had noticed a small horizontal crack along a line of rivets to the right of the forward left-hand door and even had thought of reporting it to the crew, but did not do so for fear of being thought foolish.
The aircraft was already making its ninth flight of the day, this time the 35-minute leg from Hawaii’s Big Island (Ito) to Honolulu on Oahu Island. Their route would take them close to several other islands in the Hawaiian chain, including Maui.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, they had leveled out at their cruising height of 24,000?ft with 37-year old First Officer Madeline (Mimi) Tompkins, at the controls. She had 8,000 hours flight experience and hoped soon to be promoted to the rank of captain, like Captain Schornsteimer sitting next to her, also with a similar amount of flying experience.
A loud bang behind the pilots signaled the beginning of an explosive decompression. Madeline Tompkins later said the decompression was so rapid that the displacement of the small amount of air in front of her was enough to throw her head back. Donning their oxygen masks according to regulations, and the captain taking over control as is usual in an emergency, the two pilots tried to assess the situation.
Glancing behind him, Schornsteimer had been shocked to see some blue sky through the doorway where the blown-off flight deck door had once been. Had he been able to see the full extent of the damage, he might not have made such a rapid emergency descent with the airspeed attaining 280 to 290 knots even with deployment of the air brakes. This is standard practice in the case of a decompression so the passengers can breathe more easily, but is contra-indicated when doing so might lead to the structural breakup of the aircraft.
Having seen the sky through the cockpit doorway, the captain would have realized some passengers would not have oxygen masks, and felt a rapid descent was necessary for their benefit. He could not see enough to realize that with so much of the upper fuselage missing, he was exposing them to a vicious slipstream and worse going so fast could bring about the breakup of the structurally impaired aircraft. The Captain later received many plaudits for his airmanship, but was criticized by the investigators on that point.
As the aircraft slowed at a height where breathing was easier for all, the plight of the 89 terrified passengers and the remaining (two) female cabin attendants became more bearable. Some had seen the shocking sight of Flight Attendant Clarabelle Lansing, who had been working at the airline for 37 years, sucked upwards into a hole (the famous “safety flap”) that opened up in the left of the roof near Row 5, before the whole section around it came away.