Flight 811: the untold story

Last updated 17:07 27/02/2009
Photo: Michael Bradley
Until now Shelley Bridgeman, above, had only told three people of her connection to the accident that killed her boyfriend, Lee Campbell, below.

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And as they're starting to serve champagne,
To the folks at the front of the plane,
I can hear the engines roaring, we're on our way

- Flying Home, Chris de Burgh

FOR MY twenty-fourth birthday Lee gave me a Chris de Burgh audio tape I'd been coveting. Chris de Burgh probably wasn't cool and fashionable, even back in the 1980s; I've always had terrible taste in music. Lee's was way better, U2's Rattle and Hum being his album of choice at the time. But still, I loved this Chris de Burgh tape and listened to it religiously while Lee was away on a two-week overseas business trip which began five days after my birthday. We'd been going out for almost a year: we met in 1987 while we were both working in the advertising department of Wellington-based electrical appliance retailer LV Martin & Son.

Of course, I didn't know at the time how eerily prescient the lyrics of these songs would turn out to be. Was Chris de Burgh simply obsessed with aeroplanes, flying, business class, loss and heading homewards? Or did his songs actually foretell the fact that Lee would be killed aboard his Auckland-bound flight?

The accident occurred shortly after take-off from Honolulu International Airport, in the early hours of February 24, 1989, local time. Susan Campbell, Lee's grief-stricken mother, will later say that she had a premonition - a vivid dream that he was standing by her bed - at the moment of Lee's death. A few hours later she heard about the accident on a radio report. "My blood just ran cold. I knew he was dead," she said in a subsequent television documentary.

I love the night, I love the night,
I love the element of danger and the ecstasy of flight

- The Ecstasy of Flight, Chris de Burgh

I SPENT THE nights immediately following the accident at Lee's parents' home in Miramar, Wellington. I slept in his boyhood bedroom. As the eldest of three children, Lee had been given first dibs on choosing a room. He chose the smallest - purely because it offered a bird's eye view of the planes landing and taking off from Wellington airport. With a brain addled by the sheer surrealism of the situation, it was easy to take this as some sort of sign. A sign of what, though, we struggled to articulate. And, weirdly, it seemed that Lee himself had painted his destiny years before. A dab hand with a paint brush, he'd covered the walls of his bedroom with large and dramatic palms trees and stars twinkling in a dark night sky. Of course, to us the palm trees were Hawaii and the sky was where he died. It was spooky to say the least.

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I think we blew a door.

- First Officer, United Airlines Flight 811, transcript of cockpit voice recorder

THEY DID indeed blow a door. Thanks to wiring problems or a faulty electrical switch, the forward cargo door opened in flight, causing a hole measuring about 3m by 4.5m in the fuselage of the 18-year-old Boeing 747-122 aircraft. It was a miracle that the air crew, led by Captain David Cronin, a veteran pilot with almost 30,000 flying hours under his belt and only a month or two from mandatory retirement, were able to make an emergency landing back at the airport.

Maintenance records would show a history of difficulties with the locking of this cargo door, which ended up on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It was eventually retrieved in two pieces by the US Navy in 1990 and then shipped to Seattle, Washington, for examination.

As the crippled aircraft was making its emergency descent, the flight crew received this message over the radio: "United eight eleven I need souls on board if you have it." The flight engineer replied that he didn't know how many people were on board and that he didn't have the paperwork in front of him. As it turns out, the paperwork would have been tragically out of date.

Some people are probably gone.

- Flight Engineer, United Airlines Flight 811, transcript of cockpit voice recorder

PEOPLE WERE definitely gone. When the aircraft left Honolulu, there were three flight crew, 15 cabin attendants and 337 passengers on board. But nine people, including 24-year-old Lee, were lost in the decompression explosion that occurred when the cargo door ripped off. By now, there were only 328 passengers.

A couple of days after the accident, Lee's luggage was delivered home by representatives from United Airlines. A woman called Stephanie had flown from Chicago to Wellington, accompanied by men in suits and dark sunglasses. In any other circumstances it would be a fantastic example of personalised customer service. Lost luggage is usually the worst frustration an airline inflicts on its passengers. In this instance they'd permanently mislaid a much-loved son but, hey, at least they returned his luggage safe and sound. Only the suitcases that were in the hold, mind you. Lee's carry-on baggage was lost with him.

It's funny the things you think about. At one stage, we idly discussed whether the airline would or should provide a refund for the price of Lee's air ticket - since it hadn't actually managed to give him passage from Los Angeles to Auckland as it had contracted to do.

A United Airlines television advertisement that subsequently aired in New Zealand showed a flight attendant welcoming a passenger on board and asking her where she was going. The answer was: home. The catchphrase was something along the lines of "Home: Everyone's favourite destination". We wondered whether the implication that the airline was in the business of transporting people safely home constituted false advertising.

A few days after the accident I received a postcard Lee had sent from Frankfurt's Intercontinental hotel two weeks earlier. He wrote: "Dear Shelley, I have arrived here. The flight was 26 hours. Business class is cushy. It is now 8.30 at night ... Visited red light district but couldn't find anything as lovely as you so came back to the hotel. Love from Lee."

Nine passengers, who were seated in seats 8H, 9FGH, 10GH, 11GH and 12H, were ejected from the fuselage and were not found; and thus, are assumed to have been fatally injured in the accident.

- National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992

THE DECOMPRESSION explosion blew most of the victims' seats out along with them. United Airlines offered to fly the Campbell family first class to Honolulu to view the damaged aircraft. The invitation was extended to me but I declined. This would be the first of many US trips Susan and Kevin, Lee's parents, undertook as they tirelessly sought to discover all the facts surrounding the accident; the narrator on the television documentary Unlocking Disaster - Flight 811 described their quest as "a relentless investigation to uncover the full, disturbing truth".

We slept fitfully in the Campbell household in those early days. If you woke in the night you could put money on the fact that another family member was roaming the hallway or pacing in the lounge. In the wee small hours of one morning, Susan and I drank cups of tea with nutty, branny, oat-style cookies someone had kindly delivered. These circular meals sustained me for days. Another night, Fiona, Lee's sister, saw my bedside light was on and paid a visit. We ended up sharing a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. These confections had been in one of Lee's suitcases and Susan, assuming a role no mother should have to assume, had decreed that these were a gift Lee had purchased for me. It seemed absurd to keep them as some sort of memento when they'd been designed for eating, so Fiona and I unceremoniously polished them off. Susan had also decided that a pink sweatshirt in Lee's luggage was intended for his flatmate. I was equally certain it had really been for me but I kept this to myself.

Question: Why are United Airlines' first class passengers annoyed?
Answer: Because they let the business class passengers off first.

- Anonymous, airline joke

I HEARD THIS in an Auckland bar a few years after Lee was killed. The young woman who told it was first disbelieving and then horrified when my two friends advised her that it had been my boyfriend who was killed in the accident that spawned this joke. To this day, I've only ever told three people of my personal connection to the ill-fated United flight. It's not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation. Along with sex, politics and religion, it's a topic best avoided at polite dinner parties. "Did you know my last boyfriend was sucked out of a plane at twenty-two thousand feet? Could someone pass the rocket and parmesan salad, please?" That would put something of a dampener on even the most convivial evening.

So why share the story now? It was all quite raw for a long time and, not that I couldn't have written about it before, I think it would have been harder to sift the "interesting" stuff from the "ordinary" stuff that accompanies any loss. I've always felt that I never made any specific tangible response to the event. While Lee's parents went on their quest for answers, I did nothing. Nothing kind of felt right until I woke up a few weeks ago and simply decided to write about it - out of the blue. There was no triggering point except perhaps an awareness of the anniversary approaching. If I wasn't ready now, when exactly would I be? And as a journalist, there was probably some irony that I spend my time telling other people's stories yet hadn't told this one.

An extensive air and sea search for the passengers was unsuccessful.

- National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992

ALMOST 20 years on, it was a relief to discover that a search had taken place. I hadn't known that at the time. My initial impression was that Lee could have wafted gently down through the night sky still strapped in his business-class seat - maybe even clutching a foil pack of airline peanuts - to the balmy waters below. The more realistic prospect dawned on me later when there was talk of doing DNA testing on the matter clogging up the Pratt and Whitney engine. It was best not to think about it.

Subsequent eyewitness reports from cabin crew suggested that he'd been sleeping with a complimentary eye-mask on at the time. I think that was supposed to be a comfort. Kevin Campbell's comment on the television documentary brought it all into chilling perspective: "We really would have preferred that it was Lee that went through the engine because it would have been an immediate death, whereas it was a four-minute fall down to the ocean, and we know that the people could have been alive as they were falling - and when you think about that, that's just horrific."

Also contributing to the accident was a lack of timely corrective actions by Boeing and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] following a 1987 cargo door opening incident on a Pan Am B-747.

- National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992

THE PAN Am incident led to Boeing issuing a service bulletin detailing some modifications that needed to be made to the latch locking systems on the cargo doors.

Airlines were given until January 1990 to complete the work, which had yet to be undertaken on the United Airlines 811 aircraft at the time of the accident. It was "one of the most shocking cases of a known design flaw being ignored for years", according to Unlocking Disaster - Flight 811. In his book Unfriendly Skies: 20th and 21st Centuries, author Rodney Stich reveals the airline had procrastinated over a crucial adjustment that would have cost just $US3027. Following the United Airlines accident, the FAA gave airlines just 30 days to comply with the directive.

The aircraft was successfully repaired, re-registered as N4724U, and returned to service in 1990.

- Wikipedia

The repair is said to have cost $US14 million. The plane was on-sold to Air Dabia, a Gambia-based airline, which used it to ferry British holiday-makers to and from West Africa. Evidently it was then placed in storage until 2004 when it was broken up for spare parts - to the collective relief of budget travellers the world over.

* Shelley Bridgeman moved to Auckland two years after the accident and worked in marketing and advertising before gaining her journalism qualifications at the University of Canterbury. She is now a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines, including NZ House & Garden. She is married and has one daughter.

Were you on the plane or do you have a UA811 story to tell? Email feedback@star-times.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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