David Cronin, the hero pilot who 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 for Auckland, New Zealand, on Feb. 24, 1989. The 747 was 23,000 feet over the Pacific 85 miles south of Oahu when a forward cargo door blew out, creating a gaping hole in the right 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 were able to make an emergency landing at Honolulu Airport about 22 minutes later. There were 336 passengers and 18 crew members on board.
"He not only brought the plane back safely, but he invented many of the safety procedures used today," Ben Mohide, a passenger on the flight, told the Star-Advertiser yesterday. "He was a remarkable man. He will be missed greatly."
He learned of Cronin’s death from a woman who was a purser on Flight 811. Mohide also kept in contact with other survivors living in Australia.
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.
His 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.
Investigators later determined faulty wiring and a short caused the cargo door to open mid-flight, causing explosive decompression. The jet was 19 years old at the time with more than 15,000 takeoffs and landings.
The cargo door later was recovered from a depth of 17,000 feet.
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 Cronin replied. "’I just prayed and got on with it.’"
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.
Mohide wrote and published the book at the urging of several counselors who told him it would help him get over the guilt of surviving the air disaster.
He last talked with Cronin last year, calling him to explain that illness kept him from attending a 20th anniversary event sponsored by an Australian television station.
"We’ve exchanged Christmas cards and birthday cards and kept in touch over the years," Mohide added.
Mohide said he has not returned to the islands since his 1989 visit.
The incident occurred nearly a year after Aloha Airlines Flight 243 between Hilo and Honolulu lost the top half of its fuselage on April 28, 1988, but was able to land safely at Maui’s Kahului Airport. Flight attendant C.B. Lansing, who was blown out of the airplane, was killed.
After his retirement from United, Cronin flew competitively in sport races in Reno, Nev.
Funeral services will be held at Hilltop Community Church in Carson City, Nev., on Monday.