Southwest Airlines: Cracks found in 2 more planes
Apr 3, 8:48 PM (ET)
By BOB CHRISTIE
YUMA, Ariz. (AP) - Southwest Airlines says inspectors have found cracks similar to those that caused an airplane to lose pressure and make an emergency landing have been found in two more of its planes.
Southwest says in a statement Sunday that small, subsurface cracks were found in the two planes. The airline says inspectors will evaluate further and more repairs will be performed before the planes are returned to service.
A flight carrying 118 people rapidly lost cabin pressure after the plane's fuselage ruptured - causing a 5-foot-long tear - just after takeoff from Phoenix on Friday. Pilots made a controlled descent from 34,400 feet into Yuma, Ariz. No was injured.
Authorities say inspectors have found evidence of extensive cracking that hadn't been discovered during routine maintenance before Friday's flight.
Southwest Airlines mechanics were working Sunday to cut out a section of ruptured fuselage from a Boeing 737-300 that was forced to make an emergency landing at a southwestern Arizona military base.
The tear along a riveted "lap joint" shows evidence of extensive cracking that hadn't been discovered during routine maintenance before Friday's harrowing flight - and probably wouldn't have been unless mechanics had specifically looked for it, officials said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were overseeing the removal of the top section of the jetliner's roof around the 5-foot-long tear and will send the structure to Washington, D.C., for analysis.
Meanwhile, Southwest said it had cancelled about 300 flights for the second day in a row Sunday as it inspected 79 similar planes in its fleet that it has grounded. The NTSB said it had not been notified of similar problems cropping up during those inspections. Southwest has not said if it has found other problems.
But passengers recalled tense minutes after a hole ruptured overhead with a blast and they fumbled frantically for oxygen masks as the plane descended.
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said that the rip was a foot wide, and that it started along a joint where two sections of the 737's skin are riveted together. An examination showed extensive pre-existing damage along the entire tear.
But Sumwalt noted that the extensive cracking, known in the industry as "multi-site damage," could not have been spotted during routine maintenance.
The NTSB could issue urgent recommendations for inspections on other 737s if investigators decide there is a problem that has been overlooked. The type of riveted joint involved is not normally subjected to extensive checks for wear or fatigue.
An Associated Press review of Federal Aviation Administration records of maintenance problems for the 15-year-old plane showed that a March 2010 inspection found 10 instances of cracking in the aircraft frame, which is part of the fuselage, and another 11 instances of cracked stringer clips, which help hold the plane's skin on.
The records show the cracking was either repaired or the damaged parts replaced. Cracking accounted for a majority of the 28 problem reports filed as a result of that inspection.
It's common for fuselage cracks to be found during inspections of aging planes, especially during scheduled heavy-maintenance checks in which planes are taken apart so that inspectors can see into areas not normally visible.
The jetliner had gone through about 39,000 cycles of pressurizing, generally done for takeoffs and landings. Cracks can develop from the constant cycle of pressurizing for flight, then releasing the pressure.
The plane, which had been headed to Sacramento, Calif., from Phoenix, remained at Yuma, where the NTSB and Boeing will oversee the work.
The decompression happened about 18 1/2 minutes after takeoff from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after the pilots reached their cruising altitude. They immediately donned their oxygen masks, declared an emergency and briefly considered returning to Phoenix before the cabin crew told them of the extent of the damage, Sumwalt said.
"They discussed landing in Phoenix, but quickly upon getting the assessment decided to divert to Yuma because it was the closest suitable airport," he said.
The plane's voice and data recorders were being examined in Washington, and Sumwalt said they worked well and showed no sign of a problem before the incident.
A total of 288 Boeing 737-300s currently operate in the U.S. fleet, and 931 operate worldwide, according to the FAA. It declined to say Sunday if it was requiring other operators to check their aircraft for similar flaws.
A similar incident happened in July 2009 when a football-sized hole opened up in-flight in the fuselage of another of Southwest's Boeing 737s, depressurizing the cabin. Sumwalt said the two incidents appeared to be unrelated.
Crew members on Flight 812 were taking drink orders Friday afternoon when an explosion rocked the cabin. Shawna Malvini Redden covered her ears, then felt a brisk wind rush by. Oxygen masks fell, the cabin lost pressure, and Redden, suddenly lightheaded, struggled to maneuver the mask in place.
Then she prayed. And, instinctively, reached out to the stranger seated next to her in Row 8 as the pilot of the damaged aircraft began a rapid descent from about 34,400 feet in the sky.
"I don't know this dude, but I was like, 'I'm going to just hold your hand,'" recalled Redden, a 28-year-old doctoral student at Arizona State University.
Associated Press writers David Koenig contributed from Dallas; Joan Lowy from Washington, D.C.; and Terry Tang, Walter Berry, Mark Evans and Bob Seavey from Phoenix.
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