"The Plane Was Disintegrating"

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It was a milk run, a routine bit of island hopping. The Aloha Airlines jet was cruising at 24,000 ft., just 25 miles southeast of the Hawaiian island of Maui, en route from Hilo to Honolulu. Everything seemed normal aboard Flight 243 last Thursday afternoon when suddenly -- with a whoosh like a paper bag popping -- a gaping hole blew open in the fuselage directly above the first- class compartment. "Everything was flying around -- books, papers, money," said Stanford Samson, a passenger seated nearby. "A stewardess was in the aisle being pulled toward the hole. Everybody who could grabbed her and held onto her." Farther back in the coach seats, Eric Becklin, 48, thought to himself that "my life was not in order, and I wasn't ready to die."

In theory, a Boeing 737 with roughly one-third of its roof blown off should not be able to fly. As Aloha 243 abruptly lost altitude, passengers began singing hymns and bracing for a crash. "I was quite sure we weren't going to make it," said Becklin, a University of Hawaii astronomer, who told of ducking his head to avoid the debris streaming from the remnants of the fuselage. "The plane was disintegrating so pieces were falling off it, molding was coming down, and the wind was catching it. The hole up front got bigger and bigger, and I knew it was just a matter of time before the plane came apart."

On the ground near Maui's Kahului Airport, Frank Rizzo was returning from lunch when he noticed Flight 243 making a sharp descent toward the runway. "It looked like a cargo plane with the big cargo door open, and it went into a kind of nose dive," he said. "The nose wheel hit first, and then the main wheels hit, and the entire plane settled and just sort of buckled." Even before the airport rescue vehicles arrived, two nurses clambered aboard to help injured and bleeding passengers still strapped to their seats. Many of the survivors rushed to congratulate Pilot Robert Schornstheimer on the seemingly miraculous landing. "I give credit to the pilot," said Passenger John Lopez. "He brought that plane down so smoothly. It was just like riding in a Cadillac."

That night Schornstheimer, 42, spoke to his father by telephone. "All of a sudden there was this noise, and the plane's flying funny and there's a big drag on it, so he immediately decided to change the flight plan ((and)) land at the Maui airport," the father recounted. "He said he was calm and did what needed to be done, just like any other pilot would have."

Sixty-one of the 90 passengers aboard Flight 243 were treated for injuries, mostly bruises and cuts from the debris and the rippling winds. But there was one fatality: Flight Attendant Clarabelle Lansing, who had flown with the airline for 37 years. Lansing, one of two attendants near the first-class compartment when the roof blew open, was apparently sucked out of the Aloha jet by the escaping air.

Federal officials have flatly ruled out sabotage as a cause for the hole in the fuselage. Flight 243 offers worrisome parallels to a 1981 crash of a Boeing 737 owned by Far Eastern Air Transport. All 110 people aboard that jet perished when the fuselage floor as well as roof peeled back at roughly the same altitude as that of Flight 243. Former top federal safety investigator C.O. ("Chuck") Miller, who studied the 1981 crash, points out that both vintage Boeing 737s were built in the late 1960s, endured tens of thousands of pressurization cycles, and operated in the highly corrosive atmosphere of the warm salt air over the Pacific Ocean. "The only difference this time is that . the fuselage floor held," Miller said. "But the fuselage skin on the Aloha flight started its peel-back almost exactly where it did on the Far Eastern ship -- just aft of the cockpit bulkhead."

Pressurizing an aircraft for high-altitude flight and then depressurizing it for a landing is analogous to inflating and deflating a balloon. Eventually, the fuselage of the plane, like the surface of the balloon, is apt to give way. The Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 was what aviation professionals call a "high-time" aircraft -- one nearing the end of its operational life -- and had undergone far more pressurization cycles than Far Eastern's 737.

Last October the Government ordered a close inspection of the upper-fuselage skin on all vintage Boeing 737s because the metal had begun to crack on several of these aircraft. Although such a connection is speculative at the moment, Aloha Airlines has temporarily grounded its other three high-time 737s.

None of that, however, can overshadow the near-miracle that Flight 243 survived, and with it all but one of the 95 people aboard. Thanks to a gallant pilot, this is one plane that did land safely on little more than a wing and a prayer.