You’ve probably seen Hollywood movies where a hole in the side of a plane causes utter
chaos: food trays and bags flying, seat belts unable to keep passengers in place...
Luckily, in reality, small damage to fuselage won't have such dramatic consequences.
But a big opening in a plane’s side will.
So would you believe me if I told you a pilot managed to land a plane with its much of it’s
roof torn completely off?!
At 1:25 pm, on April 28, 1988, a 19-year-old Boeing 737 that belonged to Aloha Airlines
left Hilo International Airport and headed for Honolulu.
The plane was named after Queen Liliuokalani, who was the last sovereign monarch of the
Kingdom of Hawaiʻi.
On that day, the aircraft already had three short flights from Honolulu to Hilo, Maui,
All of the trips were regular and uneventful, the weather was calm, and it seemed like nothing
could go wrong.
The captain was experienced pilot Robert Schorns-theimer, 44 years old, who had 6,700 flight hours in
the Boeing 737.
As for the first officer, it was Madeline Tompkins, 36 years old, who had flown more
than 3,500 hours in the very same Boeing model.
Early in the morning, still in Honolulu, the first officer had conducted the regular pre-flight
inspection and announced that the plane was ready for the flight.
At 11 AM, the plane left Honolulu and headed for Maui and then to Hilo.
When the plane arrived at this destination, the pilots didn’t leave the cockpit or inspect
the aircraft from the outside.
After all, it wasn't a requirement, and they didn't have to do it.
Following schedule, the plane started the last leg of the routine roundtrip at 1:25
There were 95 people on board the aircraft: 89 passengers, 2 pilots, 3 flight attendants,
and an FAA traffic controller who stayed in the observer seat in the cockpit.
After a normal take-off and ascent, the plane got to the usual cruising altitude of 24,000
And then, at about 1:48 PM, 26 miles away from Kahului, Maui, the unexpected happened.
Those who were in the cockpit heard a loud whooshing sound and a crack followed by the
deafening sound of wind seconds after.
Apparently, a small part of the roof on the left side tore loose which led to the explosive
decompression of the plane.
But the worst thing was that the decompression caused a huge section of the airplane's roof
to tear off completely.
The length of the missing part was 18.5 ft long, and that was the aircraft skin that
covered the plane from the cockpit back to the fore-wing area.
At first, the pilots didn't realize what had happened.
The first officer, who was in control of the aircraft at that moment, felt her head jerk
backward, and she noticed debris and grey pieces of insulation flying chaotically around
When the captain turned his head, he saw that the cockpit door had disappeared and instead
of the first-class ceiling, he was staring at the clear blue sky.
The plane started to roll from side to side, and it was becoming increasingly harder to
Everybody who was in the cockpit immediately put on their oxygen masks, and the captain
took over the aircraft.
He brought the speed brakes into action and began an urgent descend toward the nearest
airport, which was on Maui island.
Luckily, all the passengers were in their seats at the moment when the accident happened,
and since the seat-belt sign was still on, everyone had their seat-belts fastened.
However, all three flight attendants were standing along the aircraft aisle.
The one who was the closest to the front of the plane was swept out through the hole in
The other two were thrown to the floor by a forceful jerk.
But while one of them hit her head really hard and lost consciousness, the other started
to crawl along the aisle in an attempt to help passengers and calm them down.
At the same time, the pilots were trying to contact Air Traffic Control and signal an
To make matters worse, they couldn't hear each other and had to use gestures to communicate.
They also didn't know whether their radio worked and whether they had managed to deliver
The flight controls were sluggish and loose, and the captain had difficulty controlling
Meanwhile, the first officer was dealing with communication and assisting the captain.
It turned out that the controller hadn't been receiving the crew's messages until the aircraft
descended to a altitude of 14,000 ft.
Only then, the signal got through, and Maui Tower started urgent preparations for an emergency
But the problem was at that time, in case of emergency, the airport control tower had
to dial 911 just like anyone else.
On top of that, the controller didn't catch that the passengers and crew members would
need medical help.
After all, the crew only announced that they had experienced a rapid decompression, which
didn't reveal the entire horror of the situation.
In the meantime, the plane had already dropped to a height of 10,000 ft above sea level.
The captain removed his oxygen mask and withdrew the speed brakes.
The plane was moving toward Runway 2 of Kahului Airport.
Following the captain's command, the first officer lowered the landing gear, but the
indicator light didn't come on.
That could mean either they had a bad light, or they had serious problems with the nose
But that wasn't the only problem.
As the plane was approaching the runway, the left engine failed, and the aircraft started
rocking and shaking.
The captain made an attempt to restart the engine but didn't succeed.
And still, at 1:58 PM, just 10 minutes after the emergency and 35 minutes after the take-off,
Aloha Airlines flight 243 managed to touch down on the runway of Kahului Airport.
Landing a plane with such a huge loss of integrity was an unprecedented feat.
To stop the plane, the crew used the reverse thrust of the second, still working engine.
As soon as the plane stopped, the evacuation began.
Everyone on the plane, except for the flight attendant who had been pulled out of the plane,
was alive, although 65 people were injured.
Most people had been hurt by flying debris and torn pieces of fuselage.
Unfortunately, since nobody on the ground had known how serious the situation was, no
ambulances were waiting for the injured.
The first one arrived 7 minutes after the plane landed.
And there were only 2 ambulances on the island, which obviously couldn't fit all the people.
That's why the passengers had to be transported to the hospital in several 15-passenger tour
vans that belonged to the company Akamai Tours.
Luckily, two Akamai drivers used to be paramedics, and they started to help the injured right
on the runway.
Meanwhile, airport mechanics, as well as office staff, drove the vans to the hospital which
was 3 miles away.
Luckily, there were only 8 serious injuries, and all of these people later recovered.
As for the plane, it was damaged beyond repair and later dismantled right at the airport.
The missing part of the roof disappeared without a trace.
But what could cause such a terrible accident?
The problem wasn't the age of the aircraft; after all, 19 years isn't that old.
Neither had it accumulated too many flight hours before the accident happened.
But the 35,500 flight hours the plane had traveled included 89,680 takeoffs and landings,
which are also called flight cycles.
The reason for such a huge number was that the plane performed mostly short domestic
flights between the islands.
And this number exceeded the number of flight cycles the plane was designed for by two times!
Besides, the airplane traveled in a salty and humid environment which also added to
the wear and tear.
Interestingly, during one interview that followed the accident, passenger Gayle Yamamoto remembered
that she had spotted a crack in the fuselage when she was boarding.
Unfortunately, she was the only one who had seen this damage, and the woman hadn't thought
that the crack was important enough to inform the crew.
Have you ever heard about any other unusual accidents that happened in the air?
If so, write about them in the comment section below!
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