It was 30 years ago today that Aloha Airlines Flight 243 flying from Hilo to Honolulu was forced to make an emergency landing at Kahului Airport after a large chunk of the aircraft’s roof and sides was torn away in flight.
“It was an unreal experience,” pilot Robert Schornstheimer said, looking back. “What happened was something way beyond any realm of comprehension.”
Schornstheimer, now 72 and retired, mustered all of his training, experience and composure-under- fire to land the crippled aircraft on Maui 13 minutes later.
When he finally made it home to Honolulu that night, Schornstheimer couldn’t sleep.
“I couldn’t sleep for a week,” he said. “I kept reliving it (in) my mind.”
Thirty years later, he said, he still experiences sleepless nights remembering that flight — when a Boeing 737-297 carrying 89 passengers experienced rapid decompression after an 18-foot forward section of the roof and sides was torn from the fuselage.
Flight attendant Clarabelle “C.B.” Lansing was sucked out of the craft and died, while three-quarters of the passengers were wounded and thinking their lives were about to end.
Flight attendant Michelle Honda was thrown violently to the floor shortly after the roof ripped away, but she was still able to crawl up the aisle and assist and calm the horrified passengers. Passengers held onto flight attendant Jane Sato-Tomita after she was knocked down and seriously hurt.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the accident was caused by metal fatigue and stress fractures made worse by corrosion to a 19-year-old aircraft that had experienced countless takeoffs and landings.
Aircraft age became a key issue across the nation. As a result, major U.S. air carriers retired their oldest aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration created rules requiring additional maintenance checks as planes age.
On that April afternoon in 1988, Schornstheimer had given the controls over to First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins during the routine Thursday flight from Hilo to Honolulu. The plane was just starting to level off between 23,500 feet and 24,000 feet, and Schornstheimer was monitoring the aircraft in a supporting role.
That’s when there was a loud ripping sound.
In an instant the roof section was gone — and so was the door separating the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft. Skylight filled the cabin and debris flew wildly about.
“I turned around and saw the bloody faces of the passengers. It was surreal,” he said.
With loud noise filling the cockpit, Schornstheimer hand-signaled to Tompkins to let him take control of the plane. The aircraft was rocking back and forth and moving from side to side, and the left engine failed, forcing him to fight the aircraft’s desire to turn left.
He turned toward Maui and went into an emergency descent to about 10,000 feet, an elevation that would allow passengers to breathe after “all the air had been sucked out of their lungs.”
Schornstheimer said he could not believe what was happening. And over the years, passengers of the flight have recounted how they thought they were about to die.
“It was beyond anything you could dream of,” the pilot recalled. “It was unreal. But it became real — real enough to allow me to do what I had to do.”
With Schornstheimer and Tompkins working together, they quickly figured out how to manipulate the flaps to maintain stability and to adjust the speed to prevent violent shaking.
As they approached the runway, a light in the cockpit indicated the landing gear was not deployed. Schornstheimer swore he felt the gear work underneath his feet, but he warned the tower to be prepared in case the wheels weren’t down.
The plane had just enough power to land at Kahului — there was no other choice, he said.
As the plane touched down on its wheels, the crew could feel the plane bending and flexing dangerously.
“We’re lucky it didn’t completely fall apart,” Schornstheimer said. “Later, when they were towing it off the runway, they said the plane was sagging. That’s how bad it was. Talk about coming in on a wing and a prayer. I’ve got to give credit to the man upstairs.”
Peter Forman, a former airline pilot and Hawaii aviation expert, praised the Aloha flight crew for their miraculous effort to control and land the plane.
“It was absolutely the most frightening situation to be in that you could imagine as an airline pilot,” he said.
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was immortalized for landing his US Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009. They even made a major motion picture about it.
“But the pilots on the Aloha flight had a much more difficult situation to deal with,” Forman said. “There were so many things wrong with that airplane, and they had to figure things out on the go, things they weren’t trained for.”
The flight had a major impact on the airline industry, Forman said, with the FAA writing new rules for older airplanes and how they should be maintained.
“In the end there was a lot of good that came out of it,” he said.