July 27, 2008

Hole in Jet Forces Emergency Landing

By Tim Johnston and Micheline Maynard

A Qantas airliner en route from Hong Kong to Melbourne made an emergency landing in Manila on Friday, after a hole was ripped in its fuselage, causing the plane to lose cabin pressure.

All 346 passengers and 19 crew members aboard Qantas Flight 30, which originated in London, left the plane without injury, the airline and Australian investigators said.

Passengers described hearing a loud bang and seeing debris fly into the cabin before the plane, a Boeing 747-400, started a controlled descent to a lower altitude and changed course for Manila. Oxygen masks were deployed when the plane, which went into service in 1991, depressurized.

"There was a terrific boom and bits of wood and debris just flew forward" into the first-class area, a passenger, June Kane, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Manila.

Photographs and video of the plane showed a gaping hole in the underside of the aircraft, just in front of its left wing. Baggage could clearly be seen inside the hole "so you assume that there's a few bags that may have gone missing," Kane said.

The Australian Air Transport Safety Board, in a statement on its Web site Friday, described the event as "a serious incident" that took place at 29,000 feet, or about 3 kilometers, when the plane presumably would have been climbing to its cruising altitude. "The crew were forced to conduct an emergency descent after a section of the fuselage separated and resulted in a rapid decompression of the cabin," the agency said.

"The crew descended the aircraft to 10,000 feet in accordance with established procedures and diverted the aircraft to Manila where a safe landing was carried out," the agency said.

The authorities said the jet taxied to the terminal unassisted, where the passengers and crew members disembarked without using emergency slides.

A spokeswoman for Qantas confirmed that the plane had been forced to land but declined to give details.

Qantas has decades of experience flying the Boeing 747, which it first ordered in the 1960s. It has more than 50 of the planes in its fleet, although it also is one of the first customers for the rival Airbus A380 jumbo jet. At one point in the 1980s, Qantas's entire jet fleet was comprised of 747's, which are ideal for the long-haul flights in which the airline specializes.

The incident was a blemish for Qantas, which prides itself on having never lost a jet in a major crash.

Indeed, in the 1988 movie "Rain Man," the character played by Dustin Hoffman declared he would feel safe flying on Qantas because its planes "never crashed."

However, the airline suffered fatalities in its early years in business, when it flew propeller planes and flying boats, which take off and land on water.

Qantas also has had some close calls. In 1999, a Qantas jet overran a runway at the Bangkok airport while landing during heavy rain. There were no reports of serious injuries.

More recently, a Qantas-operated Boeing 717 was damaged in February when it sustained a hard landing at Darwin, Australia. The landing gear, tires and fuselage of the plane, flown by QantasLink, the airline's regional carrier, were damaged in the incident.

Qantas' episode immediately brought to mind the 1988 drama involving Aloha Airlines Flight 243.

That plane, a Boeing 737, was on a flight from Hilo, Hawaii, to Honolulu when an explosion occurred at 24,000 feet that caused the plane to decompress. A chunk of the plane's roof and the cockpit door were blown out of the plane. One flight attendant was killed when she was swept out of the plane, and 65 passengers and crew members were hurt.

Federal investigators said the accident was caused by metal fatigue, which was exacerbated by corrosion caused by salt water in the Pacific Ocean. The accident prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to launch an inspection of Boeing planes for possible cracks.

In 1986, a bomb tore a hole in a Trans World Airlines plane flying over Greece. The Boeing 727 landed safely, but four people, including an 8-month-old baby, were killed when they were sucked out of the airplane.


Micheline Maynard reported from Detroit.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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