The Boeing 737 is arguably one of the safest aircraft ever made. However, accidents do happen as in the case of Flight 243.
Safety is a key component in aviation and whilst traveling at 35,000 feet in the sky, moving 550 mph sounds dangerous, but it is actually one of the safest forms of transport.
Public perception is key and it ‘feels’ safer to be driving your car down the motorway at 70 mph when it is in fact much more dangerous. So airlines need to do everything possible to ensure the safety of their flights to keep paying customers in the skies.
Airlines have rigorous maintenance schedules for their aircraft that are detailed by the manufacturers. Just like any other vehicle after a certain amount of usage they will require downtime to check components and replace anything that is wearing.
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A visual inspection of the aircraft will take place by the captain before every flight, however, they are not trained engineers and are unable to look at every aspect of the aircraft. For the Boeing 737, the most in-depth is a ‘P48’ check, which occurs between 24,000 – 40,000 flight hours or about 9 – 12 years old. This will take some 20,000 – 30,000 man hours and cost several million dollars.
However, mistakes do get made, things get missed which leads us to the incident that occurred on the 28th of April 1988 that involved a 737-297 named “Queen Liliuokalani”.
Just like many other flights beforehand, Flight 243 was scheduled to depart Hilo International airport and land in Honolulu, Hawaii. A total of 95 people were on board – 89 passengers and six crew.
As many times previously, the aircraft passed the pre-departure inspection, and nothing unusual was noticed. This 737 had already completed three round trips that day.
Once Flight 243 reached a cruising altitude of 24,000 feet an enormous bang and “whooshing” could be heard from the flight deck and the 737 rolled sharply to the right and then the left. Frantically looking around to see what happened, the First Officer noticed that the cabin door was absent and that he could see blue sky!
A 18.5 feet (5.6 m) long section of the aircraft’s roof had been torn off thanks to explosive decompression. Passengers would have been able to look to their left and right and see 24,000 (7.3 km) feet of sky below them.
Naturally, passengers were absolutely terrified and things were equally frantic in the cabin. The captain took hold of the controls and made an emergency descent.
To add to their woes, the left engine then failed due to ingesting parts of the aircraft. A mayday call was put out and provisions were made to bring the stricken 737 into Kahului. It also seemed that the nosewheel was unable to be deployed too.
However, amazingly, 13 minutes after the initial ‘explosion’ Flight 243 was able to land safely with the undercarriage fully extended.
But unfortunately, not everyone appeared to be on board. A flight attendant was ejected from the aircraft whilst walking down the central aisle when the incident occurred and her body was never recovered. 65 passengers were injured with eight of them being serious.
Of course, a full investigation quickly began and it was determined that poor maintenance and metal fatigue were the cause. The inspection programme used to look for stress cracks was not adequate and was even scheduled at night.
Boeing also made changes to their production line as a direct result of the accident, changing the way the fuselage was made and joined together.
The NTSB put out a statement in their final report:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the Aloha Airlines maintenance program to detect the presence of significant disbonding and fatigue damage which ultimately led to failure of the lap joint at S-10L and the separation of the fuselage upper lobe. Contributing to the accident were the failure of Aloha Airlines management to supervise properly its maintenance force; the failure of the FAA to require Airworthiness Directive 87-21-08 inspection of all the lap joints proposed by Boeing Alert Service Bulletin SB 737-53A1039; and the lack of a complete terminating action (neither generated by Boeing nor required by the FAA) after the discovery of early production difficulties in the B-737 cold-bond lap joint, which resulted in low bond durability, corrosion, and premature fatigue cracking.
“Queen Liliuokalani” was written off. Control surfaces were damaged, the vertical stabiliser had several large dents and both engines and wing leading edges had suffered impacts from the debris.
This incident could have been a lot worse, however, all of the passengers were wearing their seat belts at the time, keeping them in their seats. Many more people could have died if this was not the case and partly the reason it is advised to keep your seat belt on at all times during a flight.