Fuselage hole forces Southwest emergency landing

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Sat April 02 2011, 05:40 AM
Fuselage hole forces Southwest emergency landing
PHOENIX (AP) – 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.

By Brenda Reese, AP
Passengers take photos with cellphones of an apparent hole in the cabin on a Southwest Airlines aircraft Friday.
EnlargeCloseBy Brenda Reese, AP
Passengers take photos with cellphones of an apparent hole in the cabin on a Southwest Airlines aircraft Friday.
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Federal officials said it was a "fuselage rupture" — a large hole on the top of the Boeing 737 — that led to a drop in cabin pressure and a terrifying 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, according to Southwest Airlines, and the FBI said it was a "mechanical failure," not an act of terror or other foul play. The cause of the hole was not immediately known.

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

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

That's when "people were dropping," said Christine Ziegler, a 44-year-old project manager from Sacramento who watched as a crewmember and a fellow passenger nearby faint, hitting their heads on the seats in front of them.

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."

"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. Don Nelson, another passenger who was seated one row from the rupture, said the noise "was a blast," and the hole looked to be about the size of a two-by-four.

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 sudden descent and 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 the incident.

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.

"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.

"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.
Mon April 04 2011, 08:34 AM
Sure hope Southwest isn't the new ValuJet. I've only flown them once, and my experience wasn't too great. It was one of the worst landings I have experienced, and the plane seemed incredibly old. I never flew them again.
Mon April 04 2011, 11:46 PM
The government plans to order emergency inspections today of 80 older Boeing 737s similar to the Southwest Airlines jet that suffered a 5-foot tear in its roof on Friday in a search for possibly dangerous cracks.

By Ross D. Franklin, AP
The Federal Aviation Administration inspection order will cover some 737-300s, 737-400s and 737-500s, models of the popular jet built in the 1980s and 1990s.
EnlargeCloseBy Ross D. Franklin, AP
The Federal Aviation Administration inspection order will cover some 737-300s, 737-400s and 737-500s, models of the popular jet built in the 1980s and 1990s.
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The Federal Aviation Administration order will cover some 737-300s, 737-400s and 737-500s, models of the popular jet built in the 1980s and 1990s. The jets covered under the order include those built with a specific manufacturing process and with more than 30,000 flights, the agency said Monday.

There are about 175 of the aircraft worldwide, 80 of which are registered in the USA, the FAA said. Southwest operates 78 of the jets and Alaska Airlines has two. Boeing said it is also working on a bulletin to airlines suggesting inspections.

INSPECTIONS: 70 flights canceled for safety check
Although the number of jets affected by the order is small, some aviation safety experts said the incident is shining a new light onto aging aircraft safety.

Despite more than two decades of efforts to better understand and detect cracks, the tear on the Southwest jet occurred in an area that was not considered high risk.

"This could change the conversation regarding the risk of aging aircraft," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. The FAA last year toughened the standards for aging aircraft, but the latest discovery could lead to even broader requirements for costly inspections, Voss said.

"Last Friday's incident was very serious and could result in additional action depending on the outcome of the investigation," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

Southwest Flight 812 lost cabin pressure at 34,000 feet and had to make an emergency descent into thicker air after leaving Phoenix for Sacramento. A flight attendant was injured, but none of the 118 passengers was hurt.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators found additional cracks on the same seam in the skin where it ripped open, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said. Southwest also found similar cracks on three additional 737-300s and grounded the jets, the airline said.

The jet involved in the accident appeared to have suffered corrosion from moisture that got into the joint where two thin bands of aluminum skin were joined, Sumwalt said. Rivet holes had also become slightly enlarged, he said.

"It indicates that something is going on in that joint that should not be going on," Sumwalt said.

The FAA ordered the inspections be done with an electro-magnetic process that detects cracks invisible to the naked eye.

As of Monday afternoon, Southwest had returned all but 14 of its 737-300s to service.
Mon April 25 2011, 07:24 PM
Washington (CNN) -- Investigators have zeroed in on several clues to why the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines B-737 ruptured on April 1.

In a report released Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board avoided answering the big question: Is it a systemic problem that could affect scores of other Boeing 737s, or was it a one-off manufacturing issue that just impacted the 15-year-old incident aircraft.

Regardless of that answer, federal officials and the plane's manufacturers hastily ordered inspections of all similar aircraft in the days following the event. Of the 136 inspected, four airplanes were found to have crack indications at a single rivet and one airplane was found to have crack indications at two rivets.

The incident scared passengers on Southwest Flight 812 when a large hole appeared, causing the rapid depressurization of the plane, as it flew at 34,000 feet. The flight crew conducted an emergency descent, landing at Yuma International Airport in Arizona. No one was seriously hurt.

From the beginning, investigators focused on the likelihood that metal fatigue played a role. The frequent cycle of pressurization and depressurization, along with the heating and cooling of an aircraft's skin, contributes to fatigue, investigators and the plane's manufacturer said. But the manufacturer said problems were not expected so early in the plane's lifespan.

The skin tear occurred at a "lap joint," where two sections of skin overlap and are joined together with three rows of closely spaced rivets.

In its Monday statement, the NTSB said the plane's aluminum skin was of the specified thickness and material, but it pointed to several factors deemed significant:

-- The exterior surface was painted blue, but evidence of blue paint also was found between the upper and lower layers of skin, suggesting it had room to seep between the layers. The report does not say when the plane was painted or repainted, information that could indicate when a problem first appeared.

-- Microscope examination of the ruptured skin revealed fatigue cracks emanating from at least 42 of the 58 rivet holes connected by the fracture. There were also cracks discovered at nine rivet holes forward of the rupture.

-- An inspection revealed gaps between the shanks of several rivets and the corresponding rivet holes for many rivets. Upon removing selected rivets, the holes in the upper and lower skin were found to be slightly offset relative to each other and many of the holes on the lower skin were not round. The NTSB did not say whether that was from wear and tear or manufacturing.