170 planes grounded after dramatic mid-air blowout on new aircraft stuns aviation experts

US News

More than 170 Boeing planes have been temporarily grounded after a chunk of fuselage dramatically blew out of a brand-new passenger jet in mid-air. 

US regulators say immediate inspections are needed after an Alaska Airlines plane suffered a cabin emergency shortly after take-off on Friday.

Photos showed a gaping hole in the side of the Boeing 737-9 MAX – and although the jet landed safely with more than 170 passengers and six crew, phones and a boy’s shirt were sucked out of the plane.

A gaping hole could be seen in the side of the aircraft. Pic: Kyle Rinker
Image:
A gaping hole could be seen in the side of the aircraft. Pic: Kyle Rinker

Alaska and United Airlines, which both have 737-9 MAXs in their fleets, have made dozens of cancellations and say it could be days until the planes return to service.

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It takes up to eight hours to inspect each aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration has warned more action may be taken.

While no 737 MAX-9 planes are registered in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority has asked all foreign airlines to perform inspections before flying into British airspace.

The Alaska Airlines aircraft involved in Friday’s incident had entered service just eight weeks earlier – and the fuselage that blew off covered a space reserved for an extra evacuation door.

While Boeing has welcomed the temporary groundings, it’s another blow for a company still trying to recover from two high-profile crashes that left its reputation in tatters.

Read more:
What ‘very dangerous’ blowout means for flights

Exterior photos suggest the rear mid-cabin exit door separated from the aircraft during the flight. Pic: KGW
Image:
Exterior photos suggest the rear mid-cabin exit door separated from the aircraft during the flight. Pic: KGW

Incident leaves experts stunned

Anthony Brickhouse, a professor of aerospace safety, said he was stunned that a piece of fuselage would fly off a new aircraft.

And while panels have come off planes before, he couldn’t recall an incident that left passengers “looking at the lights of the city”.

He added: “I can’t imagine what these passengers experienced. The wind would be rushing through that cabin.

“It was probably a pretty violent situation, and definitely a scary situation.”

Mr Brickhouse said it was a powerful reminder that passengers should stay buckled in throughout a flight.

And David Learmount, consulting editor at Flightglobal, told Sky News: “If there were people near it who were not wearing the seatbelts, they would have disappeared.”

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Flight was ‘trip from hell’

‘I am so sorry for what you experienced’

Passengers on board Flight 1282 – which was travelling from Portland in Oregon to Ontario in California – have been describing their ordeal.

“You heard a big loud bang to the left rear. A whooshing sound and all the oxygen masks deployed instantly and everyone got those on,” Evan Smith told local media.

Another passenger called Elizabeth told KGW that the incident happened about 20 minutes after take-off, in the sky three miles above Oregon.

“I looked to my left, and there’s just this huge gaping hole, on the left side where the window is,” she said – describing the sound of the wind as incredibly loud.

Pic: Elizabeth Le/AP
Image:
Pic: Elizabeth Le/AP

Elizabeth said passengers and crew were calm and everybody had their seatbelt on – and a recording showed the pilot also remained composed throughout.

She was heard asking air traffic controllers for permission to descend to 10,000ft after the cabin depressurised, an altitude where healthy people can breathe without additional oxygen.

The pilot subsequently declared an emergency and said that the plane needed to return to Portland.

Alaska Airlines chief executive Ben Minicucci said: “My heart goes out to those who were on this flight – I am so sorry for what you experienced.”

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