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Southwest Airlines patches hole in jet in Ariz.

/ Source: The Associated Press

Southwest Airlines mechanics on Wednesday were patching a large hole in a Boeing 737 that made an emergency landing in southwestern Arizona last week, but the company won't say when or if it will be back in service.

The plane has been sitting on the tarmac at a military base in Yuma, Ariz., since Friday. That's when a hole tore open in the top of the plane carrying 118 people on a flight from Phoenix to Sacramento and pilots scrambled to get it back on the ground. No serious injuries were reported, but passengers and crew had to breathe through oxygen masks to keep from passing out while the pilots brought it down to below 10,000 feet.

The incident raised questions about the effectiveness of airplane inspections across a fleet of thousands of jets.

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said the airline would not discuss its plan for the plane's repairs or its return to service.

The plane landed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, about 150 miles from Phoenix. Part of the base is shared by Yuma International Airport, and airport spokeswoman Gen Grosse said she expects the jetliner to fly out within days.

Teams of Southwest mechanics have now placed a large green aluminum patch on the plane. A spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing said its engineers were working with the airline on the fix.

Southwest mechanics on Sunday cut out a large section of the fuselage surrounding the 5-foot by 1-foot tear, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators took it to Washington so they can analyze why the fuselage failed along a lap joint failed.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order on Tuesday for urgent inspections on similar older-model Boeing 737-300s, 737-400s and 747-500s that have had at least 30,000 pressurization cycles, basically takeoffs and landings. Cracks can develop from the constant cycle of pressurizing the cabin for flight, and releasing it. The planes were built between 1993 and 2000.

Boeing said 579 airplanes will eventually have to be checked, but just 175 have that many cycles and need immediate inspections. Boeing issued a service bulletin detailing the required inspections earlier this week.

Southwest owns most of the planes requiring inspections in the U.S. fleet, about 80. The majority of the rest are flown by overseas carriers. Those airlines and their nation's aviation authorities are expected to adopt the FAA order.

Southwest finished inspecting all of its affected planes by Tuesday. They found five that had cracks in the same 'lap joint' that tore open during last week's flight.

Boeing said it did not expect to see wear on the joint until the planes reached 60,000 cycles, but the plane that had the failure on Friday had less than 40,000.