This photo shows the dramatic moment when an airplane lost the top of the fuselage mid-flight. Thirteen minutes of horror followed. WARNING: Graphic.
There were terrifying screams, then silence.
April 28, 1988 will be remembered by many as the day when one of the most shocking moments in aviation history happened. It was the fateful day when Aloha Airlines Flight 243 lost the top half of its fuselage mid-flight while carrying 89 passengers and six crew members during the short 300km jump from Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island to Honolulu on Oahu.
Thirteen minutes of horror and bloodshed followed, during which one of the flight attendants was blown from the plane and the rest of those on board were exposed to the extreme winds at 24,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
What happened on board was so horrific to passengers that it inspired a movie called Wonderlanding†
According to a US National Council for Transport Safety (NTSB) report, the aircraft experienced an “explosive decompression and structural failure”, which also caused the left engine to fail.
“About 18 feet [5.4m] from the cabin skin and structure behind the cabin access door and above the line of the passenger floor… during the flight,” the report said.
One flight attendant fell overboard during the decompression and is believed to have been fatally injured.
Somehow, the pilots managed to make what many called a “miracle” crash landing at Kahului Airport in Maui.
And the actions of a single flight attendant became one of the most notable stories of heroism to emerge from the horror.
Purser Clarabelle (CB) Lansing, Jane Sato-Tomita and Michelle Honda were the flight attendants and Captain Robert Schornsteiner was assisted by First Officer Madeline Tompkins in the cockpit.
First Officer Tompkins was flying the plane when the incident happened. She reported suddenly hearing a loud “whooshing” sound as Captain Schornstheimer noticed the plane rolling back and forth and loosening the controls.
Ms Honda, who had hit the ground, later told the… Washington Post: “There was a smoke-like vapor in all the flying debris.
“Paper, fiberglass, asbestos. It was a little white. That’s why I say blizzard, even if it wasn’t cold.”
Fellow crew member Mrs. Sato-Tomita had been hit on the head and lay bleeding and unconscious on the ground, and Mrs. Lansing had disappeared – later her crew members learned that she had been sucked out of the plane.
Ms. Honda recalled seeing her colleague, Ms. Sato-Tomita.
“The first time I saw her I thought she was dead,” said Ms. Honda. “She was just on the edge of the hole. Her head was split open at the back. She was under the rubble.”
Mrs. Honda dragged herself down the aisle, comforting and assisting terrified passengers.
“I remember laying on the floor,” she said, “crawling down the aisle sport by sport, telling people to put on life jackets. I remember looking at people on my back and calling and helping them take the vests off.”
She said the sheer force of the wind was a major obstacle.
“The passengers reached out and held me as I passed and I grabbed their arms.
“The closer you got to the hole, the stronger the wind was. I didn’t know if I would have stayed on the plane had I let it go, and I wasn’t going to find out.”
Two huge ceiling panels had landed on passengers’ heads, so Honda dragged them to the back of the plane. Oxygen masks were deployed but did not work.
The wind was “thundering, like a storm,” she said. “Like a heavy storm. Like the movies, when they had big storms in those old black and white movies.”
Every time she tried to shout a command, such as “head down,” she ended up with a mouth full of debris. Objects she tried to move would simply disappear.
When a passenger asked if there was still a cockpit, Honda, covered in blood and with torn stockings, realized she wasn’t sure and tried in vain to find out.
When it became clear that the plane would be directed to land, her attention turned to her colleague Ms. Sato-Tomita.
“I grabbed her belt and her waist and held on to the metal retaining bars.”
Injuries to many passengers
Of the injuries, two passengers who were in first class – seats 2A and 2C – were hit with debris and wiring, resulting in cuts and electric shock. Passengers in the window seats of 4A and 4F suffered serious injuries, including concussions and lacerations to the head.
Those in 4B, C, D, and E (center and aisle seats) suffered multiple lacerations.
Flyers in rows 5, 6 and 7 also suffered concussions and cuts.
An 84-year-old woman in 5A had a skull fracture and a skeletal fracture. The passengers in 6A had a broken arm, cuts and bruises in both ears.
Most who sat in rows 8 to 21 suffered minor injuries such as scrapes, cuts and barotrauma (injuries caused by sudden pressure changes such as ear, sinus or lung problems), while 25 people reported no injuries.
Faults leading to an aerial incident
The NTSB found that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the airline’s maintenance program to detect the presence of damage to the aircraft, including significant detachment and fatigue, which led to the failure of the overlap link at S-10L.
The airline’s management also appeared to have insufficiently supervised its maintenance personnel.
The Federal Aviation Administration was found to have failed to properly evaluate the airline’s maintenance program and assess inspection and quality control deficiencies and failures, among other failures.
In the end, the NTSB praised the actions of the pilots, as well as the flight attendants, and said the crew’s courage to reassure the passengers and prepare them for landing was “exemplary.”
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