A Brief History
On April 17, 2018, the Nation and the media were abuzz with the story of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, a Boeing 737 (the most popular jetliner in the world) that suffered a catastrophic engine failure resulting in a piece of the Port side engine breaking a window and causing a hapless female passenger to get sucked halfway out of the plane. Although other passengers pulled the lady back into the cabin, she later died of her injuries. It has happened before!
The passenger sucked out of her seat on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 (the aircraft involved was a Boeing 737-7H4, registration N772SW, MSN 27880) was identified as Jennifer Riordan, age 43, a Wells Fargo employee and mother of 2 children. Her death was the first fatality in Southwest Airlines history, and the first accidental death on a US airline flight in nearly a decade, so such an occurrence is certainly unusual. When the port (left) engine exploded (for reasons yet unknown), a piece broke the window next to Riordan. She was sucked halfway out of the window, her head, upper torso and arms flapping in the 500 mph slipstream. Horrified passengers pulled her back into the plane while other passengers tried to block the opening with luggage and coats, only to have those items also sucked out. Chaos and panic in the passenger cabin ensued as oxygen masks dropped and the plane quickly descended. Many passengers reportedly tried to make cell phone calls, texts, and emails to loved ones thinking the end was nigh. Luckily, the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was a US Navy veteran fighter pilot and coolly handled the jetliner, making an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Riordan was the only fatality, though 7 other passengers were injured. Passengers were stunned by the rapid decompression, sudden descent and rough landing, reporting later that they had been stunned to survive the landing.
Although unusual, sometimes a breach of a pressurized cabin in an airplane occurs, and when it does, a dramatic decompression takes place, creating a vacuum that can suck people out of the plane. The 1962 James Bond movie, Goldfinger, featured a climatic and dramatic scene in which Bond is fighting super-villain Auric Goldfinger when a pistol shot blows out a window on the private jet they are flying in. The portly Goldfinger is sucked through the shattered window, creating an unforgettable movie scene.
An real-life incident occurred on November 3, 1973, when National Airlines Flight 27 from Miami to San Francisco suffered an engine failure in the starboard engine of the DC-10 jetliner, causing a piece of engine to break a passenger window, sucking the seat belted passenger into the opening at 39,000 feet. Heroic efforts to pull the injured man back into the passenger compartment failed, and the hapless man was then totally sucked out of the plane, killed in this most bizarre way. Another 24 people on the plane were injured, and the body of the deceased passenger was not found until 2 years later!
Another tragic instance of someone sucked out of a hole in a jetliner occurred on April 28, 1988, when Aloha Airlines Flight 243 in Hawaii suffered a sudden chunk of the roof fly off the plane at 24,000 feet, sucking a flight attendant to her horrific death. That incident resulted in nearly a fourth of the upper fuselage of a Boeing 737 to rip from the jetliner, leaving a gaping unintentional sunroof! Amazingly, no one else was sucked out as the passengers were strapped in by their seat-belts and the pilots made a most unlikely safe landing. In that incident, 65 people were injured, 8 of them severely. (See our article “April 28, 1988: Stewardess Sucked Out of Jet Airliner in Flight!“)
On February 24, 1989, United Flight 811 (Boeing 747 Jumbo-Jet) lost a cargo door at 22,000 feet and 9 passengers were instantly sucked out of the gaping hole to their deaths. (See our article “February 24, 1989: 9 People Sucked Out the Door of United Flight 811“) The “Friendly Skies” were not so friendly that day!
In yet another bizarre airliner accident, British Airways flight 5390 suffered the sudden loss of the left side of the jet’s windshield, sucking the pilot out of the cockpit of the BAC 1-11 jetliner flying 17,000 feet over Malaga, Spain. Incredibly, the pilot’s feet got caught in the plane’s controls, keeping him from taking a fall to his death. With most of his body outside the cockpit in the freezing, 500 mph air, the severely injured pilot could not possibly do anything to help himself. The brave crew-members of the airliner took turns hanging onto the pilot’s legs, getting frostbitten in the process, while the co-pilot made an emergency landing. The unconscious pilot seemed to be dead, but was amazingly found to be alive when he was pulled into the cockpit upon landing. Despite frostbite and severe injuries, the lucky (unlucky?) pilot actually went back to work after recovering. (See our article “June 10, 1990: Amazing Tale of Survival (Pilot Sucked Out of Jetliner!“)
Question for students (and subscribers): If you know of other instances of people being sucked out of airliners, please share them with us in the comments section below this article. Meanwhile, if you are flying, take comfort in knowing airliners are still about the safest way to travel.
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For more information, please see…
Holleran, Robin Suerig and Phillip, Lindy. Bracing for Impact: True Tales of Air Disasters and the People Who Survived Them. Skyhorse Publishing, 2015.
Wrigley, Sylvia. Why Planes Crash Case Files: 2003. Amazon Digital, 2016.