Aloha Airlines flight 243

Q: You wrote of the impossibility of survival in a scenario like that depicted on the ABC series “Lost,” where the tail assembly falls off. Your explanation made sense, but what about the case of that Aloha Airlines 737 that lost a big chunk of its fuselage at 24,000 feet before landing safely? The survival of this aircraft always struck me as pretty amazing.

In April, 1988, Aloha Airlines flight 243, en route between Hilo and Honolulu, was cruising at 24,000 feet when a large portion of the upper fuselage suddenly ripped away. The captain and first officer turned around to discover a clear view of sky where the first class ceiling had been. An 18-foot long, nearly 180-degree section (from one side of the cabin floor, clear around to the opposite windows) had disappeared. http://www.aloha.net/~icarus/picture.htm

Dire as the situation was, and ghastly as the damage appears in the photos and footage, the incident was not on the order of the “Lost” portrayal. Neither was it comparable to what happened aboard American flight 587, discussed here a few weeks ago. All critical control surfaces — stabilizers, rudder, and wings — remained sufficiently intact, allowing the crew to make an emergency landing on Maui. They were certainly lucky. Torn-away fragments could easily have struck and destroyed the fin or horizontal stabilizers.

The jet in question, an older model 737, had spent its entire career island hopping in Hawaii, racking up thousands of short-haul flights. All those takeoffs, landings, and pressurization cycles had fatigued the structure. The event helped galvanize an FAA initiative ordering added inspections and better record-keeping for aircraft in service over 14 years.

Remarkably, only one person — a flight attendant — was killed. Standing in the aisle near row five at the moment of decompression, she was instantly swept overboard.

Some food for thought: For those who fear being “sucked out” of an explosively decompressing airplane, bear in mind that two other flight attendants, also standing at the time of the separation, survived. Meanwhile, nervous flyers sometimes ask me if it’s a breach of good sense or etiquette to mention to the crew when something appears broken or out of order. While boarding in Hilo, a passenger noticed a longitudinal crack in the airplane’s skin along a row of rivets near the forward door. She opted not to say anything.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004″ by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.