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In-flight terror over the Pacific

Last updated 09:18 01/03/2014

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It's the stuff of air travellers' nightmares. Twenty-five years ago this week, nine passengers, including Kiwi Lee Campbell, died when they were sucked out of United flight 811. A subsequent inquiry revealed the airline had failed to act on a previous safety warning. Alex Fensome reports.

Bev Thomas is now 75, but there was a moment 25 years ago when she thought she would never see another day.

When the Hawke's Bay woman boarded United flight 811 in Honolulu, bound for Auckland, on February 24, 1989, she was on her way home from visiting her daughter in Britain.

She was already nervous - she had had two near-misses with airline disasters on the trip.

After landing in London on a flight from New York, she was told the return Pan Am flight, on the same route, had blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland.

A week later, she flew to Northern Ireland on a Boeing that crashed a few days later on the M1 motorway in the Midlands, killing 47 people.

While sitting at the airport in Honolulu, she talked to a young Kiwi coming home from a business trip. His name was Lee Campbell, and when he got called to board in business class, she said, jokingly, "Lucky you, sitting up in business."

Mr Campbell laughed and said if he were paying himself he would have been back with her in economy. Those may have been the last words he said.

Despite her nerves - and noting the plane was old and needed a paint job - Mrs Thomas got on board and settled down for takeoff.

About 20 minutes into the flight, there was a sudden, loud hissing noise, followed by "an almighty thud".

The plane's cargo door had opened and been flung into the side of the cabin, ripping a hole in the fuselage. Nine people in business class, including Mr Campbell, were sucked out instantly.

There was an incredible noise of rushing air and the cabin filled with some kind of fog. Mrs Thomas thought it was a bomb.

Though she couldn't see the hole, she was sure something terrible had happened. "I couldn't believe we were still actually flying. We were at 22,000 feet."

The explosive decompression had burst some people's eardrums. Others panicked. But somehow they were still alive.

"All the lining inside was starting to rip apart. All the overhead baggage was spilling out . . . I remember the steward running up and I said, 'What about our oxygen masks?' and he said, 'Not needed, we're not high enough'."

With the initial shock of decompression gone, the cabin staff swung into action. They got everyone into the crash brace position - and dragged people away from the hole.

Meanwhile, in the cockpit, pilot David Cronin was attempting to return to Honolulu.

"They were absolutely marvellous," Mrs Thomas said. "Doing what they'd been trained to do . . . we got into our lifejackets and took the crash position . . . there was calm.

"We were all in shocked calm . . . I started to shake."

She was sure she was going to die."We thought we were going to land in the sea and we wouldn't have a chance. If it wasn't for the captain, we would never have got down."

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As the minutes ticked by, they started to believe they might survive, and were relieved to see the lights of Honolulu below.

Mr Cronin, later awarded a medal for heroism along with the rest of the crew, managed to land the plane.

When it came to a stop, the emergency slides were activated and Mrs Thomas was told to jump out along with the rest of the passengers.

It was only then that she was injured - someone jumped on her back as she hit the bottom of the slide.

Taken inside the terminal, she was able to call husband Eddie back in New Zealand. "I rang right through and Eddie, for some reason, had suddenly woken up . . . that's when I broke down.

"I welled up. He couldn't say much except exclamations."

Then the passengers realised some of them had not survived. Mrs Thomas thought Mr Campbell might have been killed, and the shock of knowing set in.

After recovering from the evacuation injury, she flew home - this time with Air New Zealand.

She still flies today, but always remembers those 25 minutes of utter terror a quarter of a century ago.

"I have flown since. I don't like it, but I love travel.

"For the first 10 years there wasn't a day went by I didn't think about it. It flashes through when I get on a plane again.

"And I feel very vulnerable up there. There is nothing you can do."

FIGHT FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT FLIGHT 811

 

Kiwi victim Lee Campbell's family led the fight to find out what really happened on United flight 811.

Kevin and Susan Campbell went to Honolulu and began an investigation independently of the United States National Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of their son's death.

It turned out Boeing had known about potential problems with the cargo doors on 747s for some time. As early as 1975, it was realised that the locking mechanism wasn't up to the job, and airlines were asked to fit double locks.

In 1987, a Pan Am flight out of Heathrow had problems with cabin pressure and returned to the airport. The cargo door was about 4cm ajar.

Soon after that incident, Boeing asked all airlines flying 747s to replace the old aluminium locking device with steel.

By the time of flight 811, United Airlines had fixed only six of its 31 jumbos. Pan Am and TWA had fixed all their fleets.

There was another basic design flaw - the doors opened outwards rather than inwards. That meant they needed a strong locking mechanism to stay closed. Inward-opening doors can be forced shut by pressure differences and are hard to open at altitude. The NTSB eventually ordered all airlines to replace the cargo door latchings with new, stronger designs. But it was too late for the nine victims of flight 811.

Lee Campbell's body was never found.

 

- The Dominion Post

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