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Hero pilot of United Flight 811 dies at age 81

By Gregg K. Kakesako

LAST UPDATED: 1:11 p.m. HST, Oct 6, 2010

David Cronin, the hero pilot who successfully landed a crippled United Airlines Boeing 747 in Honolulu 21 years ago, died Monday at his home in Minden, Nev. He was 81.

Cronin was the captain on United Flight 811, which left Honolulu bound for Auckland, New Zealand, on Feb. 24, 1989. The 747 was 22,000 feet over the Pacific when a forward cargo door blew out, creating a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft.

The explosion knocked out two of the plane's four engines. Nine passengers seated in business class died when their seats were sucked out of the plane.

Despite the damage, Cronin and his crew was able to reduce altitude and land the 747 safely in Honolulu about 22 minutes later. There were 336 passengers and 18 crewmembers on the flight.

"He not only brought the plane back safely, but he invented many of the safety procedures used today," said Ben Mohide, a passenger on the flight, during a phone interview today. "He was a remarkable man."

He and his wife, Barbara, also was a passenger, learned of Cronin's death from a woman who was a purser on Flight 811.

Cronin, who joined United Airlines as a pilot in 1954, was 59 and on his second-to-last flight before mandatory retirement when he captained Flight 811.

Cronin's ability to land the plane safely prompted a discussion over raising the mandatory retirement age. The Federal Aviation Administration raised the age to 65 in 2007.

Mohide, who kept in touch with Cronin over the past two decades, once asked him how he handled the situation with so many emergencies taking place at the same time.

"I just prayed," Mohide said was Cronin's reply. "I just prayed and got on with it."

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that a mechanical failure caused the cargo door to separate from the aircraft.

In 1993, Mohide consulted with Cronin before writing the book "Hawaiian Nightmares" about the air disaster.

"He helped me get the terminology and details correctly," he said.

Funeral services will be held at Hilltop Community Church in Carson City, Nev., on Monday.

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