Remembering United 811
By: Sharon McKarcher
The Story of United Flight 811
Anniversaries of events mark the lives of each of us. Dates carved into the soul of who we are, were, or what we have experienced. This anniversary date marks a moment of survival, of instincts, of pulling a calm from your core. Then calling upon your skills to do what is needed to save yourself and the lives of those entrusted to you.
Twenty years ago, in the early hours of February 24, 1989, United flight 811 was preparing for departure at Gate 10 in Honolulu. The eighteen year old Boeing 747-122 was bound for Auckland and continuing on to Sydney after having flown in from Los Angeles a few hours earlier.
Thirty-five year veteran, Captain Dave Cronin, just 2 months from an age 60 mandatory retirement, was going over weather details of his flight plan with 25 year veteran First Officer Greg Slater (age 48) while Second Officer Randall ’Mark’ Thomas (age 46) completes his routine visual walk around the aircraft.
Purser Laura Brentlinger and Aft Purser Sarah Shanahan, had briefed their Honolulu based crew on the in-flight details and were well into their paces. The other 13 working crew members busily got underway with their own safety checks and equipment setups.
Ricky Lam, working the forward galley “pit,” and John Horita in the aft galley pit had all four of their cart elevators alternating the transport of carts and supplies to the main deck galleys above. The shuffling sounds of the floor boards above them as passengers moved through the aisles during the boarding process faded into the mechanical noises of the elevators and the cargo bays being loaded next to them.
Sharol Preston unloaded the dumbwaiter to the upper deck a final time in order to greet her passengers and settle them in with a pre-departure beverage. Ricky Umehira and Ed Lythgoe were doing the same for their First Class passengers in the nose of the aircraft below.
This was an experienced crew both on the Flight Deck as well as in the cabin. Nearly every crew member was in their 30’s or 40’s at the time, and had flown for a number of years, save 2 f/a’s and Captain Cronin himself. Robin Nakamoto was the ‘baby’ of the crew at 26, still in her first year of flying for United.
The arming lever at 5L caused a brief 3 minute delay, but as soon as S/O Thomas saw that all cabin and cargo door warning lights were out, the aircraft proceeded with it’s departure from the gate. Though the 747 held a capacity of 400 passengers, it would leave this night with 337 in the passenger seats, 1 dead heading f/a, 15 cabin crew members and 3 on the Flight Deck.
Captain Cronin was at the controls when 811 was cleared for takeoff on the Reef Runway (8R) at 0152:49 HST. The Flight Crew observed thunderstorms both visually and on the radar so they requested and received clearance for a deviation just left of their planned course. Capt. Cronin elected to leave the seatbelt sign on due to these thunderstorms. This would later prove to be a life saving decision for many as the following unthinkable events were about to occur.
The cabin crew members are up and preparing their carts for evening service. Climbing out between 22,000 and 23,000 feet on its way to 33,000, both the Flight Deck and the cabin crew hear a loud “thump” which begins to shake the plane. Unknown to all, it is the forward cargo door releasing itself from it’s normal locked and secured position.
Black Box transcript codes are C-Captain, F-First Officer, X-undetermined, R- tower control, E- engineer.
907 -C- WHAT THE # WAS THAT?
908 -F- I DON'T KNOW.
929 -X- THE ENGIN
931 -F- OKAY AH IT LOOKS LIKE WE'VE LOST NUMBER THREE ENGINE
934 -F- AND AH WE'RE DESCENDING RAPIDLY COMING BACK
938 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY ROGER KEEP CENTER ADVISED.
941 -C- CALL THE (A/AFT) FLIGHT ATTENDANT.
944 -X- *
946 -C- GOIN' DOWN.
947 -E- WE’VE LOST NUMBER THREE
As the gull-like open cargo door raises, it rips away 1.5 seconds later from the aircraft. It takes with it part of the adjoining fuselage above it, peeling airframe skin all the way up to the upper deck windows. This causes a tremendous explosion to occur, an explosive decompression.
The passenger seats from 8GH through12GH break away at the rivets near the aisle and carry eight passengers into the black of night. Another missing person is a man who was seated across the aisle in 9F, for a total of nine. Only a flapping seatbelt and a bent arm-rest telling point to the direction he has been taken.
At this altitude, the loss of cabin pressure causes catastrophic hurricane force winds throughout the cabin. Anything in the aircraft that isn’t tied down has become a flying object. Aircraft panels, oxygen masks, wiring, baggage, service items, even carts and bins go flying. The cabin is over taken with debris and fog.
Cold air rushes in from the outside and breathable oxygen is lost. Those that still have oxygen masks above them, reach desperately for needed air. Aft aisle F/A Curt Christiansen reports that he reaches for a nearby mask, only to gag on the stagnate nicotine drenched odor from a mask in the smoking section. There is no oxygen. The cargo door separation damaged the emergency oxygen lines throughout the aircraft.
On the flight deck, Captain Cronin and crew reach for their O2 masks only to find they are in the same situation.
1016 -C- I CAN'T GET ANY OXYGEN-
1018 -F- (DID WE AH)
1019 -X- *
1034 -F- YOU OKAY?
1035 -C- YEAH.
1036 -F- ARE YOU GETTIN' OXYGEN?
1037 -F- WE'RE NOT GETTIN' ANY OXYGEN
Thrown violently, the cabin crew members make all attempts to sit down and gather themselves. A couple of f/a’s have been hurt by flying debris. A bloodied Ilona Benoit is helped to a seat by Purser Laura Brentlinger while Business Class passengers help an injured Mae Sapolu. She is seen clinging to a seat rung on the floor near the gaping hole.
Captain Cronin immediately descends to 15,000 feet in search for breathable O2 while trying to stabilize the aircraft. He begins procedures for an emergency 180 degree return to HNL. 7700 is dialed in on the radar beacon transponder and an emergency is declared at 0220 HST. Engine #3 has ingested the bulk of what flew out of the aircraft and has to be shut down due to vibration and no (N1) compressor indication.
1129 -F- I THINK WE BLEW A DOOR (* THINK WE BLEW A) - OR SOMETHIN'.
1159 -C- OKAY WE LOST NUMBER AH THREE.
1207 -C- LET'S AH SHUT IT DOWN
1212 -F- YEAH OKAY.
1214 -F- READY FOR NUMBER THREE.
1216 -F- SHUTDOWN CHECKLIST.
With Captain Cronin’s okay, Second Officer Thomas then leaves the cockpit and descends the spiral stairs to inspect the cabin. He returns to inform Captain Cronin that a large portion of right side of the cabin fuselage from 1R to 2R is missing. In the meantime, F/O Slater finds that indications of fire are apparent in engine #4. S/O Thomas confirms this upon his return to the Flight Deck. Fuel dumping is initiated during the descent to reduce the aircraft’s landing weight.
1732 -F- YOU GOT A FIRE OUT THERE
1734 -C- THERE'S A FIRE OUT THERE?
1735 -F- YEAH LOOKS LIKE IT'S ENGINE NUMBER FOUR
1736 -C- WHICH ONE
1737 -F- LOOKS LIKE NUMBER - NUMBER FOUR HOLD ON A SECOND -
1739 -C- YEAH WE GOT A FIRE IN NUMBER FOUR
1741 -C- GO THROUGH THE PROCEDURE SHUT DOWN THE ENGINE
Laura Brentlinger and Leonard Jenkins are relieved to see S/O Thomas descend the stairs. It means that the cockpit members are unhurt. They have control of the aircraft. As the cabin crew gains an understanding of what is happening, thoughts of Lockerbie only 2 months prior form. It must have been a bomb. S/O Thomas returns to the Flight Deck.
1753 -E- THE WHOLE RIGHT SIDE...
1759 -E- THE RIGHT SIDE IS GONE FROM ABOUT THE AH ONE RIGHT BACK IT'S JUST OPEN YOU'RE JUST LOOKIN' OUTSIDE
1759 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY ROGER
1807 -C- WADDAYA MEAN PIECES-
1808 -E- LOOKS LIKE A BOMB
1809 -F- FUSELAGE-
1810 -E- YES FUSELAGE IT'S JUST OPEN
1812 -C- OKAY IT LOOKS LIKE WE GOT A BOMB AH THAT WENT OFF ON THE RIGHT SIDE
1815 -C- AH THE WHOLE RIGHT SIDE IS GONE
1817 -E- FROM ABOUT ONE RIGHT BACK TO AH-
1820 -F- ANYBODY-
1822 -E- SOME PEOPLE ARE PROBABLY GONE - I DON'T KNOW
1824 -C- WE GOT A REAL PROBLEM HERE
The situation on the flight deck continues to worsen. It is clear that aside from losing engine #3 to debris and #4 due to fire, there is a loss of some aircraft controls due to the cargo door shearing off into the wing. The right outboard leading edge of the flaps has sustained damage. The flaps on this side of the aircraft will not properly extend and an indication of asymmetrical flaps will further hampered them. Additional damage to the rudder controls is soon noted.
1836 -C- WE SHUT DOWN NUMBER FOUR
1838 -C- WE'RE ON TWO ENGINES.
1903 -F- WE EVIDENTLY HAD A BOMB OR SOMETHING AH A BIG SECTION OF THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE AIRCRAFT IS MISSING.
1906 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY ROGER DO YOU HAVE THE AIRPORT IN SIGHT CLEARED FOR A VISUAL APPROACH
Keeping the aircraft from descending is impossible as two engines were never the intended to keep a 700,000 lb plane aloft. It is not a certainty that 811 will even make it back HNL. A ditching, was on the minds of all of the crew members in the aircraft. A water landing with an aircraft with a huge hole.
1939 -R- YES SIR YOU SAY YOU'RE MISSING THE RIGHT SIDE IS THAT AH THE FUSELAGE OR THE WING
1943 -C- YEAH
1944 -F- THAT'S AFFIRMATIVE THE WE'RE MISSING A SECTION OF THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE AIRPLANE
1948 -F- PART OF THE FUSELAGE IS MISSING
1950 -F- AND WE'VE GOT AH WE'VE LOST ENGINE NUMBER THREE
1952 -F- WE'VE GOT ENGINE NUMBER FOUR SHUT DOWN 'CAUSE IT APPEARED LIKE AS IF WE HAD A FIRE OUT THERE
1956 -F- WE WANT ALL MEDICAL EQUIPMENT WE CAN GET AND THE AH ALL THE EQUIPMENT WE CAN GET STANDING BY.
1955 -F- WE'D LIKE ALL THE MEDICAL EQUIPMENT WE CAN GET
2002 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY ROGER
Nevertheless, the cabin crew members focused on preparing the cabin for an evacuation. Life vests were put on and sought out for passengers. Through the deafening wind, Laura Brentlinger attempts to convey this through the use of a megaphone. The PA/interphone system was rendered unusable. Signing and the use of body language becomes an important tool of communication.
The cabin crew tries to ensure that everyone has a life vest and clears away from the doors some of the debris that would impede an evacuation. They eye their terrified passengers, enlist possible helpers in the event they should become incapacitated, and then strap themselves in for whatever may lie ahead. It is a time of deep inner thought, mental preparation of steps to be taken, reassurances, and for some, prayer.
2004 -E- I WOULDN'T GO ANY FASTER THAN YOU HAD TO BECAUSE THAT THAT HOLE
2009 -E- I WOULDN'T GET IT OVER TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY KNOTS - THAT'S A BIG-
2011 -F- WHAT'S THE MINIMUM MANEUVERING AH MINIMUM MANEUVERING FOR WHAT WE GOT HERE?
2015 -F- WE DON'T KNOW WHAT THE #'S GUNNA HAPPEN WHEN WE START TO...
2018 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY SEARCH AND RESCUE HAS LAUNCHED A HELICOPTER INTERCEPT
2022 -F- AH SAY AGAIN
2024 -C- THEY LAUNCHED A HELICOPTER
2025 -R- SEARCH AND RESCUE HAS LAUNCHED A HELICOPTER TO INTERCEPT AND AID YOU IN AH RETURNING BACK TO HONOLULU
Ricky Umehira silently notes the bravery of Ed Lythgoe seated in his jumpseat at 1R. In front of Ed’s feet lies the cavern of blackness and water. The silence of the wind whistles in the background of deep thought as the wires and guts of the disabled aircraft hang from the ceiling.
2251 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN RUNWAY FOUR RIGHT YOU'RE CLEARED TO LAND
2254 -C- IS THAT THE LONGEST RUNWAY
2255 -F- OKAY WE NEED A LONG RUNWAY
2430 -C- I NEED A LONG FINAL
2432 -C- TELL HIM WE NEED A LONG FINAL
2435 -F- AND UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY AH WE'D LIKE AS LONG A FINAL AS YOU CAN GIVE US
2438 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN TURN AH FIFTEEN DEGREES LEFT
2442 -F- FIFTEEN LEFT NOW UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN HEAVY
2449 -F- OKAY I GOT LIGHTS OVER HERE
2502 -C- OKAY
2504 -F- OKAY YOU CAN SEE IN A MINUTE
Soon excited passengers point toward the windows. Lights! Just a few at first as they near Barber’s Point, but soon, the twinkling beautiful lights of the City of Honolulu. If it wasn’t for the terror, they would be swept away by the beauty below.
2601 -R- UNITED EIGHT ELEVEN I NEED AH SOULS ON BOARD IF YOU HAVE IT
2604 -F- OKAY SOULS ON BOARD
2723 -F- HOW DO THE CONTROLS FEEL
2724 -C- ALRIGHT SO FAR
3032 -C- OKAY WELL LET'S TRY THE GEAR
3034 -F- OKAY TRYIN' THE GEAR
3035 -F- YOU READY?
3035 -E- OKAY
3035 -F- YOU'RE HIGH ON THE GLIDE SLOPE
3036 -C- YEAH
3036 -F- THAT'S FINE
3037 -C- YEAH I WANNA BE HIGH
3054 -F- TWO ENGINE APPROACH
3055 -E- I HEAR PEOPLE SCREAMIN' BACK THERE
3056 -C- I THINK * -
3058 -F- SHE'S YELLING FOR 'EM TO SIT DOWN
Flying on two engines and descending, Captain Cronin and crew must now nurse the crippled aircraft toward their approach to HNL. Runway 8L is selected because it is the longest runway, 3,000 feet longer than the 12,000 ft long Reef Runway.
Captain Cronin will need every square foot of the runway as he must come in faster than normal due to his lack of flap and rudder control. He is also keenly aware that the structurally weakened aircraft may buckle under it own weight. His descent through the sky has to be precise, direct and gentle.
3157 -C- WE GOT BRAKES?
3158 -E- NORMAL HYDRAULICS
3200 -F- SO WE GOT BRAKES
3202 -F- BUT YOU'RE ONLY GUNNA HAVE REVERSING ON ONE AND TWO
Laura and crew begin their commands in unison. “Grab your ankles. Keep your head down ‘til the plane stops. Stay down, stay down.”
Coming in at such a fast speed with only two engine reversers will require a long time to wait for the aircraft to stop. The cabin crew continue their commands. Captain Cronin tells S/O Thomas it is time for him to spin his side facing jumpseat around and prepare for the landing.
3358 -F- LOOKS GOOD SO FAR
3359 -F- ONE HUNDRED
3400 -F- BRAKE PRESSURE'S AH HOLDING BRAKE -
3402 -C- LET'S GO THROUGH THE PROCEDURE
3404 -F- BRAKE PRESSURE
3405 -C- AS SOON AS I LOCK THE AH
3406 -E- SPOILERS ARE COMIN' IN
3407 -F- OKAY
3408 -C- I'M GUNNA LOCK THE BRAKES.
3409 -F- OKAY HOLD ON
3412 -F- AH SPEEDBRAKE PARKING BRAKE -
3416 -E- SHUTDOWN THE ENGINES
3418 -F- START LEVERS
3419 -C- SHUT 'EM DOWN
3420 -C- SPEEDBRAKES
3421 -C- WE'RE EVACUATING
Twenty minutes after the explosion, flight 811 makes a picture perfect touch down.
When the flight 811 comes to a stop near the end of runway 8L, the cabin crew goes through the paces for which they have trained. “Release Seatbelts and Get Out!” The f/a’s at each of the main deck doors rise, assess their conditions, and rotate all 10 door handles. All passengers and crew members make it out of the aircraft within 45 seconds while emergency personnel wait for their cue to move in to assist.
In addition to the nine passengers that were lost in-flight, two passengers and three crew members had serious injuries and were rushed to nearby hospitals. 20 other passengers and 12 crew members suffered minor injuries and all injuries were related to either the explosive decompression or the evacuation slides.
The National Transportation Safety Board began it’s investigation immediately. The aircraft was gone over with a fine tooth comb to find the cause and any other information as to the mystery of what had happened to flight 811.
Some of the surviving family members found solace in the NTSB findings of human remains in the engine blades of #3. It meant their family member was killed instantly instead of perhaps traveling strapped to their seat for the 5 minute fall into the ocean. No bodies were ever recovered.
A final determination did not come until after the cargo door could be located and salvaged by a Navy deep-submergence vehicle. It came up in two pieces on separate dives and was sent to Seattle to be examined by Boeing.
After twenty-two months of exhaustive research and testimony, the final analysis led to a determination that a short circuit in the electrical system (a stray electrical signal) caused a known design flaw in the locking mechanism to allow the cargo door to open after it was in the locked position. It had happened before on a Pan American 747 in 1987 while on climb out from Heathrow.
Boeing and United decided not to contest liability and agreed to jointly share payment of damages in any lawsuits arising from the accident. No contest was essentially accepting no blame.
Boeing would make a directive for airlines to replace the aluminum locking sectors with steel locking sectors for the cargo doors. United would later take the extra step of having it’s ramp personnel disconnect the cargo-door circuit breakers before each flight of a jumbo jet.
After $14 million in repairs, the aircraft was brought back into service at United in 1990. It’s identification number was changed, but crew members familiar with the aircraft always knew when they were on her. She was later parked, sold through private parties and began another life and history in the West African country of Gambia.
Council 14 would like to salute the crew members of United flight 811 and pay tribute to the nine passengers lost, who left behind family members and friends with lives now forever changed.
Passengers: Anthony Fallon and wife Barbara, Harry and Susan Craig, Lee Campbell (24), Dr. John Crawford, John Swan, Rose Harley and Mary Handley-Desso.
Flight Deck Crew Members: Captain Dave Cronin, F/O Greg Slater, S/O Randall ‘Mark’ Thomas.
Cabin Crew Members: Purser Laura Brentlinger, Aft Purser Sarah Shanahan, Ricky Lam, John Horita, Curt Christensen, Tina Blundy, Jean Nakayama, Mae Sapolu, Robin Nakamoto, Ed Lythgoe, Sharol Preston, Ricky Umehira, Darrell Blankenship, Linda Shirley, Ilona Benoit.
Ramp Personnel: Lead Ramp Serviceman Paul Engalia, Daniel Sato, Brian Kitaoka.
In 1989, the Flight Crew received the Secretary's Award for Heroism from the Secretary of Transportaion for their actions.