U.S. aviation safety officials recovered the fuselage panel that exploded during an Alaska Airlines flight on Jan. 5, as authorities begin gathering evidence to learn what led to the sudden decompression of the nearly new Boeing Co. 737 Max 9 plane. .
The finding will help investigators examine what went wrong on Flight 1282, which was carrying 171 passengers from Portland, Oregon, when the crash forced the pilots to turn back. Boeing slumped in U.S. premarket trading as investors assess the effect on production and any long-term damage to the planemaker’s prospects and reputation.
Although no one was seriously injured, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said only luck prevented a more disastrous outcome. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has temporarily grounded the Max 9 for safety checks, affecting 171 aircraft worldwide, most of which are in United States, where Alaska and United Airlines Holdings Inc. are the largest operators.
The recovery of the door stopper is a major development in the investigation, although the NTSB has been unable to obtain other key evidence. The plane’s cockpit voice recorder, which has a recording time of two hours, was overwritten and that data has been lost. Investigators will also look into the airline’s handling of several pressure warnings on previous flights, Homendy said.
Boeing shares fell 7.9% in pre-market trading in the United States, while supplier Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc., which makes the 737 fuselage, fell 16%.
The door plug from the aircraft, which had just entered service on Nov. 11, was found in the backyard of a Portland-based school teacher, Homendy said. Other areas of focus for the NTSB at Sunday night’s briefing revolved around the oxygen masks that were deployed and the condition of the plane after the incident.
Flight 1282’s automatic pressurization failure light had come on on three previous flights, most recently on Jan. 4, Homendy said. In those cases, the crew had turned the switch to “alternate mode,” which is acceptable considering there is a backup.
The NTSB chairman said there was a decision by Alaska Airlines, after the light came on, to put in place a restriction that prevents a plane from flying long distances, or in the case of Alaska Airlines, fly to Hawaii over the water. The airline ordered a maintenance check, but it was not carried out, he said.
“I’m sure you’ll ask me if there’s any correlation between the light that came on and the door stopper ejecting,” Homendy said. “We don’t know if there was any correlation.”
Regulators reacted quickly to Friday’s incident, grounding 171 units of the variant less than 24 hours after the incident, including the entire fleet of 737 Max 9 in the United States. Airlines such as Alaska Air, United and Aeroméxico were among the airlines that subsequently grounded all planes.
Homendy said the circuit breaker for the plane’s cockpit voice recorder was not removed because, although the maintenance team went out to get it, it was “right at the two-hour mark and was completely overwritten at the two-hour mark.”
“The NTSB has spoken many times about the need to increase the time on CVRs from two hours to 25 hours, which is consistent with Europe and many other countries,” he said. “Because that information is key not only to our investigation, but to improving aviation safety.”
Homendy also described the events that appear to take place inside the plane after the large explosion and explosive depressurization of the cabin, noting that the cabin door opened, hit the bathroom door and stayed there. A checklist for pilots to refer to in emergencies that was laminated in the cockpit in front of them also flew out of the plane and the first officer lurched forward, losing his headset in the process.
The captain quickly reached for a backup reference manual on the seat next to him and both he and the first officer put on their oxygen masks and turned on the loudspeaker so they could communicate with the cabin crew again.
Airlines in the United States, Panama and Turkey are grounding their Boeing 737 Max 9 planes after a door exploded mid-flight, leaving a hole in the aircraft.
@AirEVthingTRNSP explains what happened during the Alaska Airlines flight and what this means for Boeing https://t.co/iI7dtqiZ1q pic.twitter.com/bsYx0kcmPF
— Bloomberg (@business) January 8, 2024
“I want to emphasize that the actions of the flight crew were truly incredible,” Homendy said, adding that it would have been chaotic and violent, with the wind outside very strong once the door plug was ejected from the plane.
The fact that there were no people sitting in seats 26A and 26B was just by chance. Seat 26A was bent and the headrests on seats 25A and 26A were missing. The 26A’s seat back was also gone, as were some tray tables, although there was no structural damage to the exterior of the plane.
All the oxygen masks were also down and some near the gaping hole had been cut away. There was also a lot of damage to the interior panel moldings.
“My impression when I saw that is that it must have been a terrifying event,” Homendy said.