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News / Northwest

Emergency at 3 miles high: Alaska Airlines pilots, passengers kept calm after fuselage blowout

By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
Published: January 8, 2024, 1:59pm

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The emergency began with a bang three miles above Oregon.

The first six minutes of Friday’s Alaska Airlines flight 1282 from Portland to Southern California’s Ontario International Airport had been routine, the Boeing 737 Max 9 about halfway to its cruising altitude and traveling at more than 400 mph.

As the plane climbed, the cabin’s air pressure steadily increased, a normal occurrence in comparison to the rapidly thinning air outside. The plane’s four flight attendants and 171 passengers sat strapped in their seats, nearly filling its 178-passenger capacity.

Then boom.

A 2-foot-by-4-foot piece of fuselage covering an unoperational emergency exit behind the left wing blew out. The force of the cabin air being sucked outside in a deafening rush twisted the metal bracing holding the seats next to the hole and ripped off their headrests — which by fate, were two of the few unoccupied seats.

The near-vacuum also ripped open the locked cockpit door, sucked away the pilots’ one-page emergency checklist and pulled off the co-pilot’s headset. More than a dozen other seats, some far from the hole, were damaged by the force. Some passengers had their cellphones ripped from their hands and sucked out. Passengers said one teenager had his shirt ripped off. Dust filled the cabin.

PDX emergency

In this photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Portland, Ore. A panel used to plug an area reserved for an exit door on the Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner blew out Friday night shortly after the flight took off from Portland, forcing the plane to return to Portland International Airport.Alaska Airlines’ decision not to ground Boeing jet despite warning signs comes under scrutiny
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This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the paneled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Portland, Ore. A panel used to plug an area reserved for an exit door on the Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner blew out Jan. 5, shortly after the flight took off from Portland, forcing the plane to return to Portland International Airport.Explainer: Now-found door ‘plug’ may hold vital clues to how a gaping hole blew open on a jetliner
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FILE - An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 Max flies above Paine Field near Boeing&#039;s manufacturing facility in Everett, Wash., Monday, March 23, 2020, north of Seattle. A window panel blew out on a similar Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 Max seven minutes after takeoff from Portland, Ore., on Friday, Jan. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted S.What to know about the Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 jet that suffered a blowout
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Kelly Bartlett was seated in row 23 — three rows in front of the blowout — and said the captain had just told passengers they could use their devices again when she heard a loud explosion and the cabin filled with cold air and rushing wind. At first she didn’t know what happened.

“The oxygen mask dropped immediately,” she told the AP on Monday. “You know what happens if the oxygen mask comes down? You put it on. And no one ever thinks they’re going to have to use that advice and follow those instructions.”

She next saw a flight attendant walking down the aisle toward the affected row, leaning forward as if facing a stiff wind. Then flight attendants began moving passengers from the row where the blowout occurred and helped them move away. One, a teenage boy, was moved to the seat next to Bartlett. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, she said, and his skin was red. He had some cuts on his body.

“His shirt got sucked off of his body when the panel blew out because of the pressure, and it was his seatbelt that kept him in his seat and saved his life. And there he was next to me,” she said, adding that his mother was reseated elsewhere.

“We had our masks on, and the plane was really loud so we couldn’t talk. But I had a … notes app on my phone that I was typing on. So I typed to him and I asked him if he was hurt,” Bartlett said. “I just couldn’t believe he was sitting there and what he must have gone through, what he must have been feeling at the time.”

The pilots and flight attendants have not made public statements and their names have not been released, but in interviews with National Transportation Safety Board investigators they described how their training kicked in. The pilots focused on getting the plane quickly back to Portland and the flight attendants on keeping the passengers safe, and as calm as possible.

“The actions of the flight crew were really incredible,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at a Sunday night news conference. She described the scene inside the cabin during those first seconds as “chaos, very loud between the air and everything going on around them and it was very violent.”

Bartlett echoed that praise, saying the entire time she felt like the plane was under control even though the roaring wind was so loud she couldn’t hear the captain’s announcements.

“The flight attendants really responded well to the situation. They got everyone safe and then they got themselves safe,” she said. “And then there was nothing to do but wait, right? We were just on our way down and it was just a normal descent. It felt normal.”

Inside the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot donned their oxygen masks and opened their microphone, but “communication was a serious issue” between them and the flight attendants because of the noise, Homendy said. The pilots retrieved an emergency handbook kept secure next to the captain’s seat.

The co-pilot contacted air traffic controllers, declaring an emergency and saying the plane needed to immediately descend to 10,000 feet, the altitude where there is enough oxygen for everyone onboard to breathe.

’We need to turn back to Portland,” she said in a calm voice that she maintained throughout the landing process.

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In the cabin, the flight attendants’ immediate focus was on the five unaccompanied minors in their care and the three infants being carried on their parents’ laps.

“Were they safe? Were they secure? Did they have their seat belts on or their lap belts on? And did they have their masks on? And they did,” Homendy said.

Some passengers began sending messages on social media to loved ones. One young woman said on TikTok that she was certain the plane would nosedive at any second and she wondered how her death would affect her mother, worrying that she would never recover from the sorrow.

But she and others said the cabin remained surprisingly calm. One passenger, Evan Granger, who was sitting in front of the blowout, told NBC News that his “focus in that moment was just breathe into the oxygen mask and trust that the flight crew will do everything they can to keep us safe.”

“I didn’t want to look back and see what was happening,” he said.

The pilots circled the plane back to Portland. Video taken by passengers showed flight attendants moving down the aisle checking on passengers. City lights could be seen through the hole flickering past.

Evan Smith, an attorney traveling on the plane, told reporters the descent and landing were loud but smooth. When the plane touched down at Portland International about 20 minutes after it departed, the passengers broke into applause. Firefighters came down the aisle to check for injuries, but no one was seriously hurt.

“There were so many things that had to go right in order for all of us to survive,” Granger told NBC.

Homendy said that if the blowout had happened a few minutes later, after the plane reached cruising altitude, the accident might have become a tragedy.

On Sunday, a passenger’s cellphone that had been sucked out of the plane was found. It was still operational, having survived its three-mile plunge.

It was open to the owner’s baggage claim receipt.

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