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by Mick the Ram
In a terrifying incident an Alaska Airlines flight was forced to perform an emergency landing after a panel was ripped off shortly after take off, with 171 passengers on board.
Flight 1282 from Portland in Oregon, to Ontario in California had reached around 16,000 feet, when what has been described as a door plug, suddenly left the Boeing 737 MAX 9, leaving a gaping hole in its side.
The plane was able to safely return to its departure airport and nobody reported any physical injuries, although mentally it would have been quite a shocking experience.
It later emerged that on the same aircraft, pilots had reported pressurisation warnings on THREE earlier flights, the most recent being just the day before this incident.
The panel, which was essentially an unused door, was discovered in the back garden of a suburb of Portland, highlighting how fortunate it was not to strike an unsuspecting member of the public, with what would have undoubtedly been a fatal impact.
In response to this alarming incident, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded 171 Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes, and ordered immediate inspections to be undertaken.
It emerged that as a result of these tests, United Airlines discovered that on several of their fleet, bolts were in need of “additional tightening”.
Piece of fuselage was a non-operational door
The section that departed the aircraft and luckily landed harmlessly in a Portland garden, was a 27kg (60lb) door plug, which is used to fill emergency exits. This would have been originally built into the plane as a workable exit, but because of the seating options offered by Alaska Airlines creating a less crowded cabin, it would not have been required for that use, so a non-operational door, or “plug” is fitted, concealed behind the interior trim.
Shirt ripped off boy’s back
This is what was torn away causing an abrupt depressurisation, creating a rush of air that ripped off the flight crews headsets and reportedly sent phones and other items flying out of the plane. The hole in the fuselage was described as being “as wide as a refrigerator” but fortunately the nearest seats to the “blow out” were vacant and seat belts would still have been engaged.
Nevertheless, the wind force was still powerful enough to suck the shirt off a teenage boy sitting close by, which must have been extremely frightening. Experts however have confirmed that had the aircraft climbed to its cruising height of around 38,000 feet the consequences would have almost certainly have been so much more severe.
“Trip from hell”
Passenger Evan Smith, recalled hearing a really loud bang towards the left rear of the plane, followed by a wooshing noise and then all the air masks dropping. Another on the flight, Jessica Montoia, described the flight as the “trip from hell”, adding that she saw a phone snatched from a man’s hand by the wind.
Only a few months old
The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines on 31 October 2023, and would only have completed around 100 flights a month, meaning that any wear and tear or maintenance failures are highly unlikely to have been contributing factors in such a young aircraft.
Alaska Airlines confirmed that after several recent warnings reported by pilots they had made a decision to restrict the aircraft from making long flights over water to Hawaii, as a precaution in the event of it needing to return quickly to an airport, as proved to be the case.
Worryingly, the company have admitted that other Boeing 737 Max 9’s that have had inspections have also been discovered to have “some loose hardware”.
Safety record takes yet another hit
For Boeing the situation is alarming. The 737 Max is its bestselling aircraft, a favourite among airlines because of its low running costs and fuel efficiency. However, its safety record has already been badly tainted, as a result of two relatively recent accidents.
These occurred in late 2018 and early 2019, in which 346 people lost their lives in two near identical incidents – one off the coast of Indonesia, and the other approaching Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In both crashes flaws in flight control software forced the aircraft into what proved to be catastrophic dives.
Wake up call?
Prior to the first of these fatal crashes, former senior manager at Boeing, Ed Pierson warned of problems on the production line of the aircraft. He now heads an organisation called the Foundation for Aviation Safety, which has been scrutinising the aircraft’s record and insists that conditions inside the company’s factories have not improved, with quality control issues apparent, but said that the US regulator has been ineffective in holding the company accountable.
He said this lucky escape might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. “This is a gigantic wake-up call”, he said. With no serious injuries but a highly visible incident occurring, he remarked: “It will inevitably cause them to have to admit there are some serious problems to address.”
That said, when approached previously, Boeing has consistently denied such problems exist.