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July 14th, 2009
10:26 AM ET

Football-sized hole in plane – metal fatigue to blame?

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Southwest Flight 2294 made an emergency landing at Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, on Monday."]

A Southwest Airlines jet made an emergency landing in Charleston, West Virginia, on Monday after a football-sized hole in its fuselage caused the cabin to depressurize, an airline spokeswoman said.

There were no injuries aboard the Boeing 737, which was traveling at about 34,000 feet when the problem occurred, Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis told CNN.

Ben Berman is a pilot and former chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. He spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.

Kiran Chetry: Most of us can't imagine what it would be like up there, 34,000 feet and then realize there's a hole in the cabin. What did you think when you heard about this?

Ben Berman: Well, my first thought was – here we go again. And I was thinking back to an incident that occurred back in 1988 when an Aloha Airlines jet lost the whole top of the fuselage. That was a very massive failure. One person was killed. Everybody was left sitting out in the open. That was worse than a skylight. In any case I thought of that and I also thought of the recent events where a couple years ago Southwest Airlines was fined for not doing inspections like the aging aircraft inspections of the fuselage for cracks that are mandated right now as a result of the Aloha Airlines event.

Chetry: And what did they figure out about the Aloha Airlines plane that may help out in this situation?

Berman: Well, they figured out you need a whole focus on airplanes as they get older, because airplanes are being flown in airline service much longer than originally anticipated. And that focus on aging aircraft has developed throughout the worldwide airline industry and resulted in a lot of good inspections and good maintenance procedures to keep these flying safely. And I thought, well, this is going to have to be another look at it and we’ll see what caused this football-sized hole in the fuselage to develop and may require some different inspections or new inspections – also to see whether the airline was doing the inspections they should have been doing.

Chetry: It's called metal fatigue when that happens to aging aircraft, right? And passengers were saying it was ripped through the metal, ripped through everything, they could see sunlight coming in the plane. When you're talking about a depressurized cabin, it seems lucky that no one was hurt.

Berman: Well, it’s somewhat lucky but it’s also really how the system is designed to work. The pilots and flight attendant crews are trained in how to react when there’s a depressurization. They basically get the airplane down to a breathable altitude around 10,000 feet high as soon as possible and the airplane's also designed to kind of contain cracks that develop through tear strips of heavy metal titanium that are built in to the fuselage. So if it was a one foot-sized hole that may be exactly the fuselage doing what it was designed to do in the event of a crack. So luck, and skill, and probably good design, but some other stuff too that needs to be dealt with very carefully.

Chetry: Southwest is saying today they're examining all of their 737-300s. They did these increased inspections overnight. But what would they be looking for as they try to determine whether or not other planes could possibly also end up in this situation with a hole in the fuselage?

Berman: Well, Southwest and maybe other airlines will be looking at that area of the fuselage to see if there are any cracks or other problems that are developing. The investigators, the NTSB investigators will be looking very carefully at the metal, you know, they'll cut out the piece of metal that was involved and look at it under a scanning electron microscope. They'll be looking for signature signs of metal fatigue or over-stress. If it was metal fatigue like we’ve been discussing, they'll see some characteristic marks that look like kind of rings of sand on the beach as the tide goes in and out that show how the metal may have fatigued as the airplane pressurized and depressurized with each flight. And so they’ll be looking for these characteristic signs. They probably will be able to develop an idea of exactly what happened here.

Filed under: Transportation
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Greg

    Larry, do you have any idea on how an airline operates? Do you have any of the following from the FAA – Private, Commercial or ATP Pilots License, Dispatcher License, Mechanics Licnese?

    For every US passenger flight, 3 people put their names on it and two of them are LEGALLY responsible from the time that flight pushes off the gate until it arrives at the next gate. They would not do it if it was illegal or not safe.

    Contrary to popular belief the airline industry is still well regulated.

    IMO you may need to educated in this area

    July 15, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  2. Larry

    "because airplanes are being flown in airline service much longer than originally anticipated

    More greed on the part of the airlines? Are planes going to start falling out of the sky because airlines don't want to buy new? What is it going to take before greed stops running this country?

    July 14, 2009 at 4:35 pm |