Aloha Airlines Flt. 243: 30 years later — recalling terror in the skies
Aircraft pilot could not afford to panic
The deafening sound shattered the peace of a routine interisland flight from Hilo to Honolulu on April 28, 1988. To the terrified passengers, it sounded like an explosion. To Capt. Robert “Bob” Schornstheimer, it “sounded like really heavy canvas ripping rapidly.”
“It happened almost instantaneously,” Schornstheimer told The Maui News last week. “There was no warning.”
Twenty minutes into Aloha Airlines Flt. 243, an 18-foot section of the cabin’s roof had ripped off, creating explosive decompression at 24,000 feet and sucking 58-year-old flight attendant Clarabelle “C.B.” Lansing out of the plane.
As strong winds rushed through the cockpit, Schornstheimer looked behind him and caught a glimpse of blue sky, bloodied faces and jagged metal.
“It was actually almost like being in a dream at that point because it’s so unexpected your mind tries to protect you from what’s going on,” he said. “You’re just sort of dazed. I did turn right back around and put my oxygen mask on as I was trained to. I signaled to my co-pilot I was taking control of the airplane.”
All Schornstheimer knew in that moment was that the plane was in deep trouble — and that he needed to do everything possible to get it to land safely.
For nearly 13 minutes, Schornstheimer and First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins worked to guide the badly damaged Boeing 737 and its 89 passengers to Kahului Airport. Those who watched the plane touch down — without breaking in two or catching on fire — would later describe it as a miracle. Sixty-five passengers and crew were injured; a three-day Coast Guard search was unable to locate Lansing or the roof of the aircraft.
This month marks 30 years since Schornstheimer and Tompkins successfully brought Flight 243 to safety. For those who experienced it, the details of that day remain as clear as if it happened yesterday.
“I can’t believe it even stayed together,” said Larry Miller, the 29-year-old assistant station manager for Aloha Airlines at the time. “The only thing holding that aircraft together were the floor beams. Everything else was gone. It should not have been able to land.”
A turn for the worse
At 1:25 p.m. on a routine Thursday, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 departed Hilo for Honolulu, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. The first 20 minutes passed like any other flight. Passengers settled in to read, work or sleep. Flight attendants Lansing, Jane Sato-Tomita and Michelle Honda started the drink service. In the cockpit, an air traffic controller from the Federal Aviation Administration sat in the observer seat behind the pilots.
It was Schornstheimer’s last interisland flight of the day, and Tompkins was flying the plane as it leveled off at 24,000 feet.
Then, at 1:46 p.m., it happened — “an incredibly loud” ripping noise. Tompkins’ head was thrown back by the force of the wind. Schornstheimer turned around and saw that the cockpit door was gone.
“It was like a surreal experience, because I was looking through the doorway and at the bloodied faces of the passengers,” Schornstheimer said. And the top (of the plane) was missing, from the aft of the galley to the forward edge of the wings.”
In the very back row, 48-year-old astronomer Eric Becklin heard a “big bang” and saw a gaping hole above the first-class section of the plane.
Becklin’s first thought was “Oh s—! . . . This is it. I’m done.”
Hyperventilating and partially in shock, Becklin managed to calm himself by reading the instructions printed on his life vest.
“I remember thinking about things like, ‘I don’t have enough life insurance,’ “ Becklin said. “But there’s nothing I could do about that. And I tried to get some peace with the world, but there was too much noise and too much debris flying around, so that never happened.”
He thought there was “no way” the plane could land in the condition it was in.
“I was very concerned about the fact that the hole was growing all the time,” Becklin said. “There was crap just flying around, and then there was a whole section of people that were right below where the hole was opening up.”
Lansing, passengers would later report, had been immediately swept out of the cabin through a hole on the left side of the fuselage. Sato-Tomita was struck in the head by debris and knocked to the ground unconscious. Honda also was thrown to the floor and clung to the metal bars under the seats as passengers held her down.
Gripping the metal bars, Honda managed to crawl up the aisle amid powerful winds, helping people pull out their life vests, according to a 1988 Washington Post story. She tried to radio the cockpit but couldn’t get through. With the lines down between the cabin and the cockpit, neither side knew what had happened to the other.
Courage in the cockpit
In the cockpit, the roar of the wind drowned out the pilots’ voices. Schornstheimer he could not afford to panic; there were so many emergencies demanding his attention.
“I was just totally focused on having to make it,” he said. “I didn’t have time to dwell on what would happen if I didn’t.”
The pilots didn’t know it at the time, but the immediate pressure change had raised the floor, breaking five consecutive floor beams and snapping the cable to the left engine, which left the plane rocking from side to side.
Schornstheimer’s first move was to regain control of the aircraft, then start an emergency descent toward Maui. He reduced power on the one good engine and used the control wheel to straighten out the plane’s flight path.
Meanwhile, he abandoned any hopes of controlling the pressure. The hole was too big, he decided, and trying to fix the pressure would be “a waste of time, and actually kind of dangerous.”
“You always have to maintain the big picture, and the big picture is to fly the airplane, keep it under control and at the same time figure out what you’re going to do,” Schornstheimer said.
At 1:48 p.m., Tompkins got through to the Kahului Airport tower, according to the NTSB report.
“We’re just to the east of Makena,” Tompkins told the tower in a steady voice. “We are unpressurized. Declaring an emergency.”
She asked for equipment and assistance upon landing and gave the tower a warning — the aircraft might be landing without its nose gear.
The plane was coming in at 170 knots — just over 195 mph, or 50 mph faster than normal. But the pilots didn’t have much of a choice. Earlier, when Schornstheimer had tried to slow the plane, it “started shaking more violently,” he said. But the plane didn’t have enough power to circle around; the crew had to land it.
“We couldn’t have gone around and had the tower check our nose gear,” Schornstheimer said. “We had to land. There wasn’t any question about it.”
Miller watched the plane approach from the ramp.
“It looked like it was going to crash,” he said. “There was part of it missing. The whole top of the fuselage was gone. . . . I didn’t possibly think that this plane could land.”
At 1:58 p.m., with its nose gear lowered, the plane touched down on the tarmac of the Kahului Airport. The danger wasn’t quite over yet — Schornstheimer said the plane felt “springy, like being on the end of a diving board,” and he sensed it flexing as if it might break in two.
When it finally came to a stop, Schornstheimer “breathed a big sigh of relief,” he said. “And I think my co-pilot did, too.”
‘Her life was the airline’
As aircraft rescue firefighters arrived on the scene, a makeshift triage was set up next to the aircraft.
Miller said the first person he spoke to was Honda.
“We were trying to verify the headcount,” said Miller, the Aloha Airlines station manager. “We came up one short.”
Honda realized Lansing was missing. Miller took the coordinates around where the accident had occurred and instructed that they be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Maui had only a handful of ambulances at the time, so Miller remembered tour companies offering their vehicles to carry the injured to the hospital.
“We were shuttling more than one person in the ambulance at a time,” Miller said. “We did what we had to do to get people to the hospital.”
Seven passengers and one crew member had been injured seriously; 57 passengers had minor injuries, according to the NTSB report.
To reinforce just how fragile the plane was, Schornstheimer pointed out that workers had to prop up the middle of the plane while towing it off the runway. As the plane was towed away, it started to rain.
It looked “like the plane was bleeding,” said Miller, who climbed aboard the aircraft later that day to examine the damage.
“It felt like I was walking on a giant sponge with a cardboard floor, because you could feel all the wires and everything underneath,” Miller said.
Nothing but “floor beams and the man upstairs” held it together, Miller said.
A three-day search by air and sea turned up no trace of Lansing or the fuselage. A 37-year veteran of Aloha Airlines, Lansing was remembered by co-workers and passengers for her enduring aloha spirit and service to customers.
“Clarabelle Lansing was the nicest old-timer there that knew her customers, her regulars,” Miller said. “She called them by first name. She called me by first name. That was something to me. She was total Aloha customer service. She was the textbook model of a good stewardess.”
And, he recalled, “She always had a garden of flowers in her hair, not one or two.”
Schornstheimer had flown with Lansing many times, and while they weren’t that close, he knew she’d formed friendships with the longtime passengers.
“Her life was the airline,” Schornstheimer said.
He added that Lansing was one of the “most strict flight attendants with the cabin crew.” She always stressed that flight attendants should go back to their stations once their duties were complete.
Honda later told The Washington Post that Lansing’s adherence to the rules might’ve been what saved Honda’s life.
Cracks in the system
Ten months after Flight 243, the cargo door tore off a Boeing 747 traveling from Honolulu to Sydney, Australia. Nine passengers were ejected from the plane and lost at sea.
The tragedies of United Airlines Flight 811 and Aloha Airlines Flight 243 “really got the FAA focused on older airplanes,” said Peter Forman, a local aviation analyst, author and former commercial pilot.
Flight 243’s explosive decompression was caused by a crack that had spread along the upper row of rivets holding together two panels of the fuselage.
A passenger on the flight later told investigators that she had seen a crack in the fuselage but did not report it.
According to the NTSB report, the first officer on duty before Tompkins had checked the plane’s exterior and maintenance logs that morning and spotted nothing unusual.
At the time, federal regulations didn’t require exterior inspections between flights, and none took place in Hilo.
The NTSB determined that the accident was a “failure of the Aloha Airlines maintenance program” to detect disbonding and fatigue damage.
At the time of the incident, the 19-year-old aircraft had totaled 89,680 flight cycles (takeoffs and landings) — second highest in the worldwide B-737 fleet.
Aloha’s inspection schedule fell within Boeing recommendations. However, neither airline, manufacturer nor federal government fully took into account the stress of frequent interisland flights, according to the FAA’s webpage on lessons learned from aviation accidents.
“An interisland plane that’s going up and down has many more pressurization cycles than a plane flying to the Mainland and back,” Forman explained. “The FAA learned a lot in terms of what is potentially going to be causing these problems.”
After Flight 243, Aloha scrapped the aircraft, named Queen Lili’uokalani, and two other aging jets. The FAA ordered inspections of older Boeing 737s, particularly those that used a certain type of bonding process found to be more susceptible to corrosion.
Boeing had abandoned the “cold bond” process in 1972, three years after the airplane of Flight 243 was built. The NTSB faulted the FAA and Boeing for not adjusting maintenance practices after discovering problems with cold bonding.
“I think the main point was that the FAA communicated with the airlines what the rules were for inspections and maximum life for certain components,” Forman said. “I think so much of the good that came of it was regulatory.”
Schornstheimer said nothing he’d ever trained for compared to what he and Tompkins experienced that day.
However, eight years in the Air Force — much of it spent as an instructor pilot — helped him “a great deal.” Schornstheimer also spent eight months as an air traffic controller at the Kaneohe Marine Base before joining Aloha in 1977.
At the time of the accident, the 42-year-old Schornstheimer had logged 8,500 flight hours, according to the NTSB report. Because his flights were often short hops between islands, that meant he likely had the experience of more than 15,000 landings. Tompkins, 37, had joined Aloha in 1979 and had flown a total of 8,000 hours, according to the report.
“Most of what I did in the air was done, to be honest with you, by memory,” Schornstheimer said. “It was all done from experience and recollection, and determining what was most important at the time. My co-pilot said she felt well prepared because she was due to start formal captain upgrade training and had been doing a lot of studying on her own.”
Schornstheimer flew back to Honolulu after the accident but “didn’t go home for over a week because we were told the press would be all over.”
The captain was barely sleeping in between all the flashbacks, Lansing’s memorial service, interviews with the NTSB and a trip to Washington, D.C., to receive an award alongside Tompkins at a pilots’ union ceremony.
At the time, Aloha didn’t really have a program in place to help pilots deal with trauma, he said.
“One of the dangers for people that do go through an event of this magnitude, they’re changed forever, really,” said Schornstheimer, who settled a lawsuit with Boeing in 1991 over the emotional stress he suffered after the accident.
Tompkins went on to become a captain and would later fly for Hawaiian Airlines. Her own struggles with the aftereffects of Flight 243 would lead her to help the Air Line Pilots Association develop a critical incident response program, which aided pilots dealing with trauma.
She received the association’s 2010 Pilot Assistance Award for her efforts.
“I think that became her legacy, in a way, from this whole thing,” Schornstheimer said.
The two pilots and Honda also participated in the 1990 television docudrama “Miracle Landing,” based on Flight 243.
Schornstheimer said he’s “thankful for being able to make it, and thankful for the people at the Fire Department, and also the hospital and nurses and doctors that took care of our passengers.”
He retired from Aloha in 2005, three years before the airline folded.
“You really never totally get over it,” said Schornstheimer, now 72. “I didn’t sleep really well last night just knowing this interview was coming up. . . . They say the best thing to do was talk about it a lot, but I didn’t do that much.”
He said what’s really helped him reduce stress is music. He picked up the upright bass and even played in a band, though he admits he’s probably a better pilot than he is a musician.
Becklin, meanwhile, flew home to Oahu the day after the accident and had to decide whether he still wanted to travel to Washington, D.C., that weekend to deliver data from Mauna Kea.
“I was told that the best way to overcome the whole thing was to just get on a plane. That’s what I did,” said Becklin, who at 78 now works for NASA aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the world’s largest airborne observatory.
Miller, now the assistant airport superintendent for the Maui District, said that he “never flew on April 28 until last year.” Under his desk, he keeps a box of NTSB and FAA documents on Flight 243.
“The heroic actions that Capt. Schornstheimer took by landing that aircraft in the conditions that it was (in), was just as miraculous — or more — than Sully’s Hudson landing,” said Miller, now 59.
“No matter who the people were, I never forget how they came together,” he said. “I guess it’s normal in traumas. But it was rare for us. It was the first time for us in Maui. Never had it since. Never hope to have it again.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.