This photo shows the dramatic moment when a plane lost the top of its fuselage in mid-flight. Thirteen minutes of horror followed. WARNING: Graphic.
There were haunting screams, then silence.
April 28, 1988 will be remembered by many as the day of one of the most shocking moments in aviation history. It was the fateful day that Aloha Airlines Flight 243 lost the upper half of its fuselage mid-flight while carrying 89 passengers and six crew members on the short 300 km journey from Hilo to the Big Island of Hawaii and Honolulu on Oahu.
Thirteen minutes of horror and bloodshed followed, with one of the flight attendants thrown from the plane and the rest of those on board left exposed to extreme winds 24,000 feet above the ocean. Peaceful.
What happened on board was so horrific for the passengers that it inspired a film called Miracle Landing.
According to a US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the aircraft suffered an “explosive decompression and structural failure” which also caused the left engine to fail.
“About 18 feet [5.4m] cabin skin and structure aft of the cabin entry door and above the separated passenger floor line…during flight,” the report revealed.
“A flight attendant was carried overboard during decompression and is believed to have been fatally injured.”
Somehow, the pilots managed to make what many called a “miracle” emergency landing at Kahului Airport in Maui.
And the actions of a single flight attendant have become one of the most remarkable stories of heroism to emerge from horror.
Purser Clarabelle (CB) Lansing, Jane Sato-Tomita and Michelle Honda were cabin crew on the flight, and Captain Robert Schornsteiner was assisted by First Officer Madeline Tompkins in the cockpit.
First Officer Tompkins was flying the plane when the incident occurred. She reported suddenly hearing a loud “hiss”, as Captain Schornstheimer noticed the plane rolling from side to side and the controls loosening.
Ms Honda, who had been knocked to the ground, later told the Washington Post“There was a smoke-like vapor in all the debris flying around.
“Paper, fiberglass, asbestos. It was a little white. That’s why I say blizzard, even though it wasn’t cold.
Another crew member, Ms Sato-Tomita, had been hit in the head and was lying bleeding and unconscious on the floor, and Ms Lansing was missing – later her crewmates learned 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,” Ms Honda said. “She was right on the edge of the hole. His head was split in the back. She was under the rubble.
Ms. Honda dragged herself along the aisle, comforting and helping terrified passengers.
“I remember being on the floor,” she said, “crawling down the aisle rung by rung, telling people to put on life jackets. I remember looking at people on my back and calling them and helping them take the vests off.
She said the force of the wind was a major obstacle.
“Passengers were reaching out and holding me as I passed and I grabbed their arms.
“The closer you got to the hole, the stronger the wind. I didn’t know if I would have stayed on the plane if I’d let go, and I wasn’t about to find out.
Two huge ceiling panels had landed on the passengers’ heads, so Honda carried them to the back of the plane. Oxygen masks were deployed but did not work.
The wind was “stormy, like a storm,” she said. “Like a bad storm. Like the movies, when they had big storms in those old black and white horror movies.
Every time she tried to shout an order, like “heads down,” she ended up with her mouth full of debris. Objects she tried to move simply disappeared.
When asked by a passenger if there was still a cockpit, Honda, covered in blood and torn stockings, realized she wasn’t sure and tried unsuccessfully to find out.
Once it became clear that the plane was being vectored for landing, his attention turned to his colleague, Mrs. Sato-Tomita.
“I grabbed his belt and waist and held on to the metal restraint bars.”
Many passengers injured
Among the injured were two passengers seated in first class – seats 2A and 2C – who were hit by debris and wires, resulting in lacerations and burns from electrocution. Passengers in the window seats of 4A and 4F suffered serious injuries, including concussions and head lacerations.
Those in 4B, C, D and E (center and aisle seats) suffered multiple lacerations.
The flyers in rows 5, 6 and 7 also suffered concussions and lacerations.
An 84-year-old woman in 5A suffered a skull fracture and a skeletal fracture. The passengers of 6A had a broken arm, lacerations and blood effusion in both ears.
Most of the people seated in rows 8-21 suffered minor injuries such as abrasions, cuts and barotrauma (injuries caused by a sudden change in pressure such as ear, sinus or lung problems), while 25 people reported no injuries.
Failures that led to an in-flight 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 severe lift-off and fatigue, which led to the Lap joint failure at S-10L.
The airline’s management was also found to have failed to adequately oversee its maintenance force.
The Federal Aviation Administration was found to have failed to properly assess the airline’s maintenance program and assess its inspection and quality control deficiencies and failures, among other failures.
In the end, the NTSB praised the actions of the pilots, but also the flight attendants, saying the crew’s bravery in moving to reassure passengers and prepare them for landing was “exemplary”.
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