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Southwest incident similar to 1988 miracle landing

April 8, 2011 - Art Smith
The recent rupture of the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines 737 over the skies of Arizona sent the airline and aviation officials in search of the cause of what could have been a deadly accident. It also drew comparisons to what is likely the most famous incident of in-flight fuselage failure, the explosive decompression of Aloha Airline Flight 243 in 1988.

Marietta native Bob Schornstheimer was the captain on board that flight which was meant to be a short hop from Hilo to Honolulu. While cruising at 24,000 feet part of the top of the fuselage failed, ripping more than 18 feet from the top of the plane.

One flight attendant, Clarabelle Lansing was sucked out of the plane by the air pressure. The other 94 people on the plane survived, landing 10 minutes later at the airport in Maui. In all, 64 people on the flight were injured.

The next morning I found myself on the doorstep of Robert Schornstheimer Sr., the father of the pilot who was now being called a hero. We needed a photo of the aviator who became famous overnight; the dad gave me a print of a family dinner at the Point of View Restaurant. That simple family photo would appear in newspapers and magazines all over the world within the next few days.

A few months later Schornsteimer was in the area to visit his family and I got to meet him. The man had huge hands and a powerful grip, both of which likely helped him land the crippled plane. He seemed humbled by all the attention he was getting from the accident. The newspaper even published a “Hometown Hero” section celebrating the successful landing.

The newspaper in Maui, The Maui News, like The Times and the News and Sentinel, is owned by Ogden Newspapers. I’ve talked to some of the staff at the paper who were working at the paper in 1988. The airport in Maui is located just a few miles from the paper. After the landing, the plane was pushed to the edge of the airport property where it sat eerily for month with a blue tarp covering the gapping hole in the fuselage — not the most comforting sight on your daily drive to work.

The investigations that followed showed both the salty air and the age of the aircraft led to the accident. That aircraft had taken off and landed more than 89,000 times before the incident.

The 15-year-old Boeing 737-300 involved in last week’s accident had a lot of takeoff and landings in its history, with Southwest jets completing as many as six flights a day. Early reports indicate, like the Aloha flight, the constant compression and decompression of the jet may have been a cause.


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Aloha Airline Flight 243