Investigators looking into the near-disaster on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max in Portland, Oregon on January 5th described what must have been a “terrifying event” during a news conference on Sunday, providing details not previously known.
Alaska Flight 1282 declared an emergency after a piece of the fuselage pulled free from the plane at 16-thousand feet. The gaping hole filled the cabin with debris, wind, and a temperature well below freezing. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy’s chilling account was drawn from her tour of the damaged airliner and interviews with flight and cabin crew members.
The force of the rapid decompression pulled the cockpit door open and it slammed into the door of the nearby bathroom. Loose objects would have been blown toward the hole in the fuselage from the cockpit as well as the rest of the airplane. But Homendy noted specifically that the pilots’ quick reference checklist was swept out.
Through the open cockpit door, one of the forward cabin flight attendants could see the jolt had pushed the first officer forward in her seat.
“She lost her headset at that moment and the captain had a portion of his headset pulled off.” Both were able to don oxygen masks equipped with separate microphones and communicate with air traffic control. Even so, Homendy said, “communication was a serious issue” in the cabin. “It was very loud between the air and everything going on around them. It was very violent.”
The door plug coming free, which initiated the decompression, is designed to seal an optional exit door that carriers could use if they wish to increase the number of passenger seats on their Max 9‘s. It does not work as an emergency door. In fact, it pivots only 15 degrees out for maintenance and inspection, according to the NTSB.
It is also not a “plug door” which has confused many familiar with the kind of exit that seals by “plugging” the door when closed. The NTSB chair spent some time explaining this at her news conference on Sunday.
However confusing the component’s name, it is clearly a key piece of the investigation and shortly after ending her measured but impactful Q&A with reporters, a more joyful Homendy returned to announce that the missing plug had been found. It was hours after other debris from the plane had turned up on the ground in Portland, including two mobile phones presumably belonging to passengers.
“Our structures team will want to look at everything on the door; all the components on the door to look at witness marks, paint transfer, what shape the door was in ,” she said.
Even before a Portland resident identified by Homendy only as “Bob” reported the find in his backyard, official investigators were likely already analyzing the various ways it could have disengaged itself from the airplane, using the Boeing-supplied diagram above.
And while the official NTSB line is that investigations take a year or more to conclude, given the retrieval of this critical part, the potential for disaster narrowly avoided, how recently Alaska took delivery of this brand new airplane and most significantly the troubled history of Boeing’s 737 Max, it won’t be long before some preliminary explanation is given.
Airlines are certainly hoping for a quick resolution. United and Alaska in the US and airlines like Copa, Aeromexico and Turkish who use the Max 9 for flights into the States have been ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop flying those planes until they complete safety inspections of the door plug. That’s an operation expected to take between 4 and 8 hours to complete but will necessarily be hampered by not knowing exactly what went wrong on Alaska 1282.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.