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Hole In Fuselage Forces Plane To Make Emergency Landing

December 27, 1988

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ An Eastern Airlines jet carrying 110 people tore open at 31,000 feet Monday, causing the airliner to lose cabin pressure and forcing an emergency landing, authorities said. Two minor injuries were reported.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said cracks were found on the same plane’s fuselage in two previous inspections.

Bobbie Mardis of the FAA’s safety data branch in Oklahoma City also said mechanical problems forced the aircraft to make unscheduled landings on two occasions since 1985.

The Boeing 727 en route to Atlanta from Rochester, N.Y., landed at Yeager Airport with a hole in the fuselage that opened up 50 miles, or a few minutes’ flying time, north of Charleston, officials said.

The jet, carrying 104 passengers and six crew members, lost cabin pressure but experienced no other sudden trouble, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jack Barker in Atlanta.

The opening in the fuselage was ″about a 14-inch square hole,″ Barker said. ″Those things start with a crack and end up as a hole.″

There was no immediate indication of the cause of the tear near the top of the jet, which was about 20 years old, Barker said.

The passengers put on their oxygen masks, and the pilot flew the jet to 10,000 feet, an altitude that requires no pressurization, Barker said.

Two passengers were taken to the Charleston Area Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries, a hospital spokesman said.

″They are being treated for injuries as a result of the decompression ... nose bleeds, headaches, that sort of thing,″ said spokesman Gary Chernenko.

Passengers described the sudden blast of air that whipped through the craft when the hole blew open.

″When you felt cold air right away you knew the outside was coming in,″ said Elaine Davie, 40, a passenger from Rochester, N.Y. Her ears still ached after popping when the plane quickly descended, she said.

Passenger Sam Piazza, 55, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he and his wife at first thought a bomb had exploded. ″We were cruising along and you could hear the rush of the wind and the pitch of the wind and all of a sudden you could hear a big pop,″ he said.

Another passenger, David Moore, 39, of Phoenix, Ariz., said he was concerned about an unusual noise before takeoff.

″There was a definite wind noise, not from the back of the plane but from above our heads,″ said Moore. ″The (second officer) came back, looked at it and decided it wasn’t anything.″

But co-pilot Garland Jones, 40, disputed Moore’s account and said the second officer went to the rear of the plane to help flight attendants close the aft door prior to takeoff.

When the hole broke open, ″I looked up, and I could see sunlight shining through,″ Moore said.

The roof of a 19-year-old Boeing 737 tore off an Aloha Airlines flight at 24,000 feet on April 28, killing one person and injuring 61. The accident was blamed on cracks in the fuselage skin from repeated pressurization and depressurization of the cabin.

That accident prompted a federal investigation into the aging fleet of jets, and the FAA ordered airlines to replace rivets believed to have caused cracks.

Eastern spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak in Miami said the Eastern jet has always been owned by Eastern, was delivered to the company in the late 1960s and was maintained according to FAA guidelines. ″It had an inspection of the crown in September - that’s the whole top area from the cockpit to the tail,″ she said.

″We don’t know what he cause is yet, we’ve dispatched a team of mechanics to Charleston,″ she said.

Ms. Mardis said a fracture 3.32 of an inch large was found in the jet during a 1987 safety inspection in Atlanta, and a 5-inch crack was found in 1986.

She said one unscheduled landing was made when a hydraulic pressure system failed, and the other when an engine compressor failed. Ms. Mardis did not say where the landings were made, but said they were reported in 1985 and 1986.

″We were just going along, and they were serving the first-class passengers and all of a sudden air started to rush by and it was kicking up dust,″ said Bill Tretter, 25, of Buffalo, N.Y., who was traveling with three family members.

Co-pilot Jones said the air traffic controller and the passengers handled the situation well. ″It was a very unusual occurrence, but the procedure we practice all of the time,″ Jones said. ″It went very well.″

Airport Police Chief Robert Barnette said the hole was 6 to 8 inches wide on the left side of the aircraft near the tail.

″It was a tear,″ Ms. Ceremsak said. ″The metal did not actually leave the fuselage. It was at the top of the fuselage, right over the last rows of the aircraft.″

Barnette said he learned at 9:10 a.m. of the plane’s request to land.

″As far as I was concerned it was a normal landing,″ said the air traffic controller who guided the plane in. He spoke on condition of anonymity. ″I asked if he needed assistance and he said no. There was no emergency crews needed on the runway.″

Boeing Commercial Airplanes spokesman Tom Cole, reached at home Monday, said he did not have the jet’s records in front of him but could not recall any serious structural problems with the 727. He said there have been cracks in some 727s over the years, as with all jetliners, but nothing unusual.

Boeing Co. had shut down nearly all operations for the holiday.

After the incident is studied and it is determined how the tear occurred, Boeing will notify all operators of 727s of similar age and use ″to tell them all what we found out so they can check their airplanes,″ Cole said.

The three-engine jet went into commercial service in 1964. Production ended in 1984, with 1,831 delivered. According to a Boeing inventory for the end of 1987, Eastern had 122 727s in its fleet.

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