A Brief History
On February 24, 1989, 9 of the 337 passengers on United Flight 811 exited the flight early to their untimely deaths.
Digging deeper, we find the giant Boeing 747 airliner heading for Sydney, Australia, having originated in San Francisco.
The giant airplane was only about 16 minutes into its flight after takeoff from its stopover in Honolulu and at about 22,000 feet when a cargo door suddenly and violently popped open!
The door was of the kind that swings outward when opened and was secured with electronic latches, possibly the source of the failure. As the door slammed the side of the jet, the impact caused severe damage to the flight deck, and 10 seats broke their mooring and were sucked out of the plane, taking 9 passengers with them. Obviously, all 9 passengers died.
Other passengers and crew experienced the terror of the violent catastrophe through the rapid decompression of the cabin and the miserable feeling of riding in an airplane that has a big hole in the side! Luckily, the passengers were still buckled up and so were not sucked from their seats, although a couple of flight attendants nearly ended up skydiving without parachutes! Through their own efforts of hanging on and other people helping pull them in, the two flight attendants were brought back into the relative safety of the cabin, although injured.
The pilots thought the plane had been bombed and rapidly descended to a lower altitude to get to breathable air and immediately turned back for Honolulu.
Additional damage was done to the engines on the right side of the jet (the 747 has four engines, two on each side), which had to be shut down as they had caught on fire. The flaps that slow the plane for landing were also damaged, so when the plane landed 14 minutes later, it was still going over 200 mph!
Incredibly, the landing was otherwise safe. 38 people had injuries though.
An investigation revealed that problems with airplane doors that open outward instead of into the airplane were well known. It was also discovered, however, that nothing had been done to redesign the doors to reduce the risk.
Despite the door’s design flaw, Boeing engineers must get some credit for giving the plane a robust frame, for although the 747 suffered massive damage that included outer skin peeling off the fuselage, the internal structure of the stringers remained intact, and the giant jet was able to land safely.
Unfortunately for Flight 811, the skies were not too friendly on that day. Question for students (and subscribers): Please feel free to share your air travel adventure stories in the comments section below this article.
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For more information on this tragedy, please see…
Peterson, Shari. The View from 13F: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Flight 811. Good Egg Publishing Network, 2019.