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Plane Had Problems Even Before Cabin Wall Ripped Open

December 28, 1988

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ A Boeing 727 forced to land after a 14-inch hole opened in its fuselage had problems maintaining cabin pressure during the flight even before the roof ripped open, federal officials said Tuesday.

The crew of Eastern Airlines Flight 251 told investigators they began having trouble shortly after takeoff Monday from Rochester, N.Y., en route to Atlanta, said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz.

″By the time they reached 31,000 feet, they were able to stabilize the pressure,″ Lopatkiewicz said. ″They sent the second officer back to check the doors to listen for problems. Sometime when there’s a problem with the door seals, you can usually hear it, but he didn’t hear anything.

″Shortly after he returned, there was the rapid depressurization.″

The plane, with 104 passengers and six crew members, landed at Charleston’s Yeager Airport after the roof tore open at 31,000 feet. Two passengers were treated at a hospital for nosebleeds and headaches caused by the sudden loss of pressure.

On Tuesday, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-bound Eastern Airlines jet returned to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to repair a loose door panel that kept the cabin from pressurizing properly, an airline spokeswoman said.

Flight 715, an A-300 airbus carrying 210 passengers, took off at 8:45 a.m. and returned to the airport at 10:05 a.m. to have the access door panel repaired, said Virginia Sanchez.

Also Tuesday, Eastern mechanics inspected 17 of the 100 series 727s and 28 of the 200 series 727s, airline officials said.

″It’s just as a precautionary measure following yesterday’s incident,″ said spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak.

As federal investigators began the months-long job of pinpointing the cause of Monday’s incident, they also said Tuesday that:

- Records for the past five years show the plane had made seven unscheduled landings before this week, but none could be called an emergency landing.

- The section of the fuselage that developed the hole was a replacement part, not the original skin of the plane, which is about 20 years old.

- The piece that peeled away would be taken to a laboratory for metallurgical tests.

The plane was 50 miles, or a few minutes’ flying time, from Charleston when the hole opened. Passengers said they heard a pop and felt a cold wind whipping through the cabin before oxygen masks dropped down before them.

The crew took the plane down to 10,000 feet, the altitude at which oxygen masks aren’t needed, before landing.

Two NTSB representatives from Washington were in Charleston on Tuesday to examine the plane. It could be six months before a final determination is made on what happened, said NTSB investigator Pamela Kleckner.

Interviews with flight attendants revealed that the 21,000-foot drop took no more than 90 seconds, Kleckner said.

″They said they were amazed and how quick it was between the time the oxygen masks came down and the time the captain said people could breathe normally,″ Kleckner said.

Kleckner said the agency will test the torn piece of metal. ″It’ll go back to our laboratory in Washington, our metallurgical lab, and they’ll use an electron microscope ... to pinpoint the type of failures on the metal itself,″ she said.

Kleckner said the NTSB also will look into complaints by some passengers that their oxygen masks did not work.

A 5-inch crack had been found on the fuselage of the plane in an inspection in July 1986, and corrosion and a tiny wing crack were found in April 1987, said Bobbie Mardis of the FAA’s safety data branch in Oklahoma City.

Federal officials also said mechanical problems, including failure to maintain cabin pressure, had forced the jet to land at least seven times in the past five years.

But Ceremsak said, ″From what I understand from what they’ve pulled up on this plane, there’s nothing unusual in its history.″

Ceremsak said the jet was maintained according to FAA guidelines, and its crown - the top of the fuselage from the cockpit to the tail - was inspected in September.

Mardis said Tuesday that it was not unusual for a plane to develop cracks like those on the 727.

″Inspectors do periodic inspections, and cracks are one of the items they look for,″ she said. ″It’s part of normal wear and tear, and we know that’s going to happen. That doesn’t mean they’re not serious, but that’s why they look for them.″

Lopatkiewicz said investigators determined that the section that peeled away had been replaced, but they did not know whether it was because of cracks.

″I suppose it’s possible, but we don’t have any information on the maintenance and the timing on when things had been done,″ he said.

FAA officials in Atlanta said NTSB officials has custody of all maintenance records, including the September inspection report. Lopatkiewicz said the agency hasn’t received the records.

Richard Maddan, manager of the FAA office in Charleston, said he didn’t think there was any connection between the plane’s previous problems and the tear on Monday.

″From the preliminary information, I don’t think it would be the same as the corrosion or the rivet (problems),″ Maddan said. ″The information I got is that it’s just a hole.″

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