Video: 15-year-old airliner rips open mid-flight

  1. Closed captioning of: 15-year-old airliner rips open mid-flight

    >>> very close call . 34,000 feet over the skies of arizona last evening. when a large hole ripped open atop a souwest alines jet full of passengers. the oxygen mask we hear about on those routine preflight safety announcements became life safers to passengers. the interior of the plane was exposed to open daylight. dozens of the airline's 737s are grounded, temporarily taken out of service by southwest itself. and invest gators are racing to learn what happened and whether there may be a larger maintenance problem with the fleet. tom costello is in our washington bureau now with more.

    >> reporter: lester, nearly 80 southwest 737s have been taken out of service as southwest looks for any signs of the kind of cracking that may have caused this hole to open up midnight. 118 passengers on board along with five crew members. they all got off alive, one flight attendant and a few passengers passed out from a lack of oxygen as air was sucked out of the cabin. investigators on the ground in yuma, arizona today looking over the southwest 737 that made an emergency landing late friday, after a five-foot hole ripped off midnight. passengers described a loud bang, then a rush of heiress caping from the cabin.

    >> and bam, i mean, just incredible noise, and then while you're trying to process what just happened, then oxygen masks come down.

    >> not everyone was getting their mask on. some were having problems, people were passing out. it was not good.

    >> reporter: flight 812 had just approached flying altitude, when a large portion of the skin rip ripped open, right over the passengers heads. the pilot quickly descended then made an emergency landing at a military base in yuma.

    >> i thought we were going down, i really did.

    >> any time you have a rapid decompression of an aircraft is a big deal , just from the standpoint of safety. it is a startling event not only for the passengers, but the flight crew .

    >> reporter: the plane involved, a 15-year-old 737 300. another southwest plane had a hole open up in the roof nearly two years ago, forcing an emergency landing in west virginia . airlines were ordered to inspect 737s for signs of metal fatigue . two years ago, the faa find southwest $7.5 million for failing to conduct timely crack inspections on its 737 fleet. we talked to the ntsb on the scene.

    >> we will be looking at everything. right now we are here to look at this accident, and if we find issues related to this accident that could be applied to the rest of the fleet, we will make that point known.

    >> reporter: and metal fatigue has led to tragedy. in 2005 , a chalk's airways plane crashed on takeoff from miami when its wing ripped off. in 1988 the top of an aloha airlines plane tore off in flight. a flight attendant was sucked out of the plane to her death. metal fatigue is caused by the constant movement of an airplane, the constant contraction and expansion. this aircraft was 15 years old, with nearly 40,000 cycles.

    >> as you know, there are an awful lot of 737s in the sky, a lot of them doing a lot of short hops, takeoffs and landings as you described. what's the word on the airplane right now.

    >> this is a workhorse for the industry, as you well know, but it is aging. southwest has been trying to remove or get rid of the 737 737 300s and replace them. the faa says in the united states right now, there are a total of about 288 737-300s in service worldwide, about 1,000.

    >> tom costello in washington, thank you.

    >>> greg fife is a former ntsb investigator, he joins us from denver. i think a lot of people are looking at this, a three-foot hole in an airplane, how much danger were these passengers in? could this plane have crashed?

    >> no, not from the standpoint of this type of failure in the fuselage itself. the big thing is, if there was a structural compromise where -- like aloha where you lost a very big chunk of that airplane. in this case it ripped off a three to four foot hole. there's tear straps under the skin to prevent that rip from propagating even further. from that standpoint they were never in danger of crashing this airplane.

    >> we have seen these incidents before. has the industry underestimated the toll that age and repeated landings and takeoffs take on airplanes?

    >> i don't think they've underestimated it, lester, i think we have to be very cautious, because we know from history, there's been aging aircraft issues and, of course, this is an older aircraft. we have to look at the fact that this is a new event the. it could be something totally unrelated to the process of aging aircraft, but more to the inspection now. there are comprehensive inexpectations and they could induce damage, the mechanics could induce damage by doing some of these inspections. we have to wait until the ntsb does its investigation.

    >> at 34,000 feet, you have to get oxygen on in a hurry or as we saw on that flight, people start passing out.

    >> i think security now is more highlighted than safety with regard to -- these are rare events as far as a rapid decompression or explosive decompression . i think from the standpoint of security, they're more concerned about the bad guys doing something bad in a laboratory, with an oxygen generator as we've seen, the damage that can be done from valujet. i think if there is an event like this, whoever is in a lavatory at the time, will have to find their way to an oxygen mask . i think the odds are against somebody being compromised as far as their health is concerned without a lavatory oxygen generator .

    >> thanks for sharing your expertise

Image: Happy reunion
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
Southwest Airlines flight 812 passenger Mary Flores, left, is hugged by her granddaughter, Dylan Dean, 9, center and daughter Desiree, right, after arriving at Sacramento International Airport Friday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 4/2/2011 7:09:47 PM ET 2011-04-02T23:09:47

One passenger said it was a "real quick blast, like a gun." Another called it "pandemonium." Still another described watching a flight attendant and another passenger pass out, their heads striking the seats in front of them as they lost consciousness.

Southwest Airlines on Saturday grounded 79 aircraft of its fleet of Boeing 737s for inspection after a hole in a jet's fuselage appeared, forcing a pilot to make a rapid descent and an emergency landing in Arizona on Friday. The airline canceled 300 flights Saturday to allow the inspections and could cancel the same number Sunday.

Federal officials said it was a "fuselage rupture" that led to a loss of cabin pressure on Friday and a terrifying but "controlled descent" from 36,000 feet to an emergency landing at a military base in the Arizona desert.

No serious injuries were reported among the 118 aboard, the carrier said. The FBI indicated it was a "mechanical failure," not an act of terror or other foul play. The cause of the hole was not immediately known. Southwest and Boeing engineers will inspect the aircraft to try to determine the cause, Southwest said in a statement.

Passenger Brenda Reese said Flight 812 had just left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for Sacramento, Calif., when a "gunshot-like sound" woke her up. She said oxygen masks dropped for passengers and flight attendants as the plane dove.

Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Los Angeles, said the pilot "made a rapid, controlled descent from 36,000 feet to 11,000 feet altitude."

Image: Passenger photo aboard Southwest flight that made emergency landing
Via NBC News
This picture was taken by a passenger aboard the Southwest flight as it prepared to make an emergency landing.

A Sacramento resident told CBS13 she received a text message from her husband, who was aboard the flight: "Plane going down. Love you."

She said she heard from her husband a few minutes later after the plane landed safely. The woman's husband said there was an explosion or a hole in the plane, the TV station said.

Shawna Malvini Redden, another passenger aboard the flight, tweeted after landing: "One flight attendant was injured and a couple passengers passed out but nothing major."

Don Nelson, who was seated one row from the rupture, said it took about four noisy minutes for the plane to dip to less than 10,000 feet, which made him "lightheaded."

During the rapid descent, "people were dropping," said Christine Ziegler, a 44-year-old project manager from Sacramento who watched as a crew member and a fellow passenger nearby faint, hitting their heads on the seats in front of them.

'Blue sky' visible
Larry Downey, who was seated directly below the hole when it opened, told Phoenix TV station KPNX that "it was pandemonium."

"You could look out and see blue sky," he said.

Joshua Hardwicke said he was awakened by a "sound like you shook up a pop can and dropped on the ground. It was like a firecracker."

The 24-year-old motorcycle technician was seated seven rows from the hole, which Reese described as "at the top of the plane, right up above where you store your luggage."

Video: 15-year-old airliner rips open mid-flight (on this page)

"The panel's not completely off," she told The Associated Press. "It's like ripped down, but you can see completely outside... When you look up through the panel, you can see the sky."

Cellphone photographs provided by Reese showed a panel hanging open in a section above the plane's middle aisle, with a hole of about six feet long. Nelson compared the noise to a gun, "a real quick blast," and said when the hole "first blew out, you could tell there was an oxygen deficiency."

"They had just taken drink orders when I heard a huge sound and oxygen masks came down and we started making a rapid descent," a passenger named Cindy told Sacramento TV station CBS13.

"You could see the insulation and the wiring. You could see a tear the length of one of the ceiling panels," she added.

The plane landed at a military base in Yuma without any injuries reported, except for a flight attendant who was slightly injured, according to the airline.

Reese said the crewmember fell and injured his nose, and that some people passed out "because they weren't getting the oxygen."

The National Transportation Safety Board said an "in-flight fuselage rupture" led to the drop in cabin pressure aboard the 15-year-old plane.

A similar incident on a Southwest plane to Baltimore in July 2009 also forced an emergency landing when a foot-long hole opened in the cabin.

Four months earlier, the Dallas-based airline had agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle charges that it operated planes that had missed required safety inspections for cracks in the fuselage. The airline, which flies Boeing 737s, inspected nearly 200 of its planes back then, found no cracks and put them back in the sky.

Julie O'Donnell, an aviation safety spokeswoman for Seattle-based Boeing Commercial Airplanes, confirmed "a hole in the fuselage and a depressurization event" in the latest incident but declined to speculate on what caused it.

A total of 931 Boeing 737-300s are operated by all airlines worldwide, with 288 of them in the United States, the FAA said.

'No real panic'
Reese said there was "no real panic" among the passengers, who applauded the pilot after he emerged from the cockpit following the emergency landing at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station/International Airport, some 150 miles southwest of Phoenix and about 40 minutes after takeoff from Sky Harbor.

Story: 4 dead in crash of small jet at New Mexico airport

"It was unreal. Everybody was like they were high school chums," Ziegler said, describing a scene in which passengers comforted and hugged each other after the plane was on the ground. Southwest sent another airliner to take them to Sacramento later Friday.

"I fly a lot. This is the first time I ever had something like this happen," said Reese, a 37-year-old single mother of three who is vice president for a clinical research organization. "I just want to get home and hold my kids."

Gregor said an FAA inspector from Phoenix was en route to Yuma. The NTSB said it also was sending a crew to Yuma.

Holes in aircrafts can be caused by metal fatigue or lightning. The National Weather Service said the weather was clear from the Phoenix area to the California border on Friday afternoon.

In 1988, cracks caused part of the roof of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 to peel open while the jet flew from Hilo to Honolulu. A flight attendant was sucked out of the plane and plunged to her death, and dozens of passengers were injured.

This story contains information from The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News.

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