In February 1990, a movie was released in the USA called ‘Miracle Landing’. The film tells the story of Paradise Airlines Flight 243, flying from Honolulu to Hilo, which was involved in a terrifying explosive decompression when a large section of the forward roof blew off.
After the pilot’s battle to keep the stricken jet in the air, the airliner eventually lands, and the terrified passengers are safely evacuated. It’s then discovered that one of the Flight Attendants is missing after being sucked out of the aircraft during the explosion.
But ‘Miracle Landing’ was more than just a dramatic made-for-television movie. The on-screen portrayal of Paradise Airlines Flight 243 was taken from the actual events aboard Aloha Airlines Flight 243 on April 28, 1988.
A Beautiful Day For Flying
It was the usual sunny Hawaiian day at Hilo International Airport (ITO), where Aloha Airlines Boeing 737-297 (N73711) ‘Queen Liliuokalani’, the 152nd Boeing 737 airframe to be built, was being readied for another island-hop to Honolulu International Airport (HNL).
Aloha Airlines was formed in 1946 and plied the inter-island routes of the Hawaiian archipelago until its demise in 2008. The Hilo to Honolulu island hop was a popular flight, and many of the passengers were regular travellers who knew the crew well.
Looking after the 89 passengers that day was veteran Purser Clarabelle (CB) Lansing. Lansing had been flying for 37 years, becoming one of Aloha’s first Flight Attendants when she joined the airline after leaving high school. CB was very popular with passengers and colleagues alike and had even appeared in adverts for the airline. “She was very personable. She reminds you of the top-of-the-line flight attendants you see on the major carriers,” said Dale Randles, a Honolulu resident who flew Aloha to Maui once a week. “She was very attractive, a beautiful woman. You could ask her anything and she’d answer your questions”.
Helping Lansing in the cabin were Jane Sato-Tomita and Michelle Honda, who had worked for Aloha for 14 years. In the flight deck, Captain Robert Schornsteiner was assisted by First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins and the pair were joined on the jump-seat by an FAA Air Traffic Controller.
Passengers slowly began boarding and settled themselves in for the short flight. As one lady entered the jet through the forward door, she noticed, what looked like, a large crack in the fuselage. Not wanting to cause a fuss, she said nothing and took her seat.
At 13:25 Hawaii–Aleutian Standard Time (HST), flight 243 took off from Hilo and soon reached its cruising altitude of 24,000 feet. The Flight Attendants quickly got to work carrying out the inflight service in the cabin. Michelle Honda had finished her duties and decided to grab some lunch.
Lansing was known by her crew to be a pretty ‘by-the-book-person’ so rather than sitting with her colleagues in the galley, Honda returned to her crew station. “Because she (Lansing) adhered to the rules and regulations, I think it saved my life. We weren’t congregating. I was in my position. Jane was in hers.” Honda later explained.
From her seat, Honda spotted Lansing in a galley mirror, still out in the cabin collecting glasses. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh God’, and took out my little purple plastic bag. I didn’t look up. The guilt was there because I had been sitting down and I went down the aisle and turned around to face the aft so I wouldn’t have to meet her eyes”.
And then, at around 13:48 HST it happened. The blast hit Honda on the left shoulder and pushed her to the ground. There were screams and then silence.
The explosive decompression had torn off a large section of the roof, consisting of the entire top half of the aircraft skin extending from just behind the cockpit to the fore-wing area, a length of about 18.5 feet (5.6 m).
First Officer Tompkins was flying the aircraft when she suddenly heard a loud ‘whooshing’ sound and noticed pieces of grey insulation floating above the cabin. Captain Schornstheimer felt the aircraft roll to the left and right, and the controls went loose. As he turned round to see what had happened, he could see “blue sky where the first-class ceiling had been”.
As Honda lay on the floor, her training told her that the aircraft was experiencing a rapid decompression. “There was a smoke-like vapour in all the debris flying around,” she later explained. “Paper, fibreglass, asbestos. It was kind of white. That’s why I say blizzard, although it wasn’t cold.”
Terrified, she grabbed hold of the metal bars under the passenger seats and held on for dear life. “My first concern was keeping my breathing shallow because I couldn’t get to an oxygen mask,” she said. “You can pass out. I didn’t want to get to that point.”
A Job To Do
She realised that the aircraft was still flying and she had a job to do. “I remember being on the floor,” she later told The Washington Post. “Crawling up the aisle rung by rung, telling people to put on life-vests. I remember looking up at people on my back and calling up and helping them take out the vests. One mother asked me to help her son. He was across the aisle in a B seat. He was scared, but he didn’t say anything. You could see it in his face. His eyes were searching. I think everybody had that look.”
Honda could barely move against the wind. “The passengers were reaching out and holding me as I went by and grabbed their arms. The closer you came to the hole, the more intense the wind was. I didn’t know if I would have stayed in the aircraft if I let go, and I wasn’t about to find out”.
Her colleague Jane Sato-Tomita was knocked unconscious and lay bleeding in the aisle at the most exposed part of the jet. “The first time I saw her, I thought she was dead. She was just on the borderline of the hole. Her head was split open in the back, and she was under debris,” Honda said. “My central thought was to get Jane to the back of the aircraft. I tried to move her and drag her back, but I couldn’t get her. I didn’t realise she was unconscious”. Instead, she asked passengers seated around her to try and hold her down.
The cabin itself had suffered extensive damage. Some of the oxygen masks had dropped but were not working. Two large ceiling panels had also come loose, landing on passengers’ heads, which Honda managed to heave into the empty rows at the back of the plane.
Under the intense strain, the floor had buckled, obscuring the view of the cockpit. Indeed one passenger even asked if it was still there. Until that moment, Honda had been meticulously working through her emergency checklist. She hadn’t even thought about the pilots. Now, the terrifying prospect that they had been ejected in the explosion dawned on her.
“I guess that it is so ingrained that we take off and we land, and our cockpit is there that I didn’t even think, ‘Are they flying this?’ I assumed they were there as we were making turns,” she said.Crawling to the rear, Honda tried to call the pilots, but the interphone cables had been severed in the explosion. She went back into the aisle and asked a man if he knew how to fly for reasons she did not understand.
“When they (passengers) had time to start asking questions, I felt there was a potential for hysteria,” Honda said. “The man in the F seat, he was starting to look apprehensive after my not being able to talk to the cockpit.”
Then, in the distance, the island of Maui loomed dead ahead. Honda explained: “I first thought we were going to go straight into the head of Maui. This is when I saw the plane veering towards the right and I knew we were going to make a landing on Maui.”
In the flight deck, Schornstheimer and Tompkins battled with the controls of the badly damaged jet. As they precariously descended towards Kahalui Airport (OGG), the number one engine failed due to the debris ingested following the decompression.
Bloodied and Bruised
The blast had been so powerful that it had blown Honda’sHonda’s shoes off. She later found them in the aisle, but her stockings were shredded, and her skirt and blouse were covered in blood. She would only open her eyes to tiny slits for fear of flying debris, which pushed into her throat every time she shouted a command. When she began to yell, ”Heads down!” No sound came out. “I thought to myself, ”Voice commands?’ Yeah, right”.
As the 737 descended lower, Honda crawled back up the aisle and lay next to the unconscious Sato-Tomita, “I grabbed her belt and her waist and held on to the metal retainer bars”.
The jet kissed the runway at 13:58 HST, just over ten minutes after the emergency had begun. When they eventually stopped, Honda started to yell, “We made it! We made it!”.
An off-duty crew member called Amy Jones-Brown struggled free from her seat and began to help Honda with the evacuation.
The scene on the ground was horrifying. Passengers seated near the hole were covered in blood after being battered and cut by flying debris. Honda recalled her anguish about an 84-year-old woman who sat in the front when the flight began and was now fighting for her life with serious head injuries.
Jane Sato-Tomita was seriously injured. Bleeding and disoriented she was evacuated off the 737 with the other passengers.
“Nobody Saw Her Leave”
Only now, once everyone had escaped did the horrifying realisation dawn on them that Lansing was gone. “Nobody saw her leave,” Honda later emotionally told the press.
A couple seated in the first-class section later studied a photo of Lansing and said she was the one serving them a drink when the roof of the plane blew off.
Passenger William Flanigan explained, “She (Lansing) was just handing my wife a drink. She had stopped and told us this was the last call. We were going to be descending. And then whoosh! She was gone. Their hands just touched when it happened.”
The subsequent investigation revealed that the 19-year-old Boeing 737 had accumulated 35,496 flight hours before the accident. Those hours included over 89,680 flight cycles (takeoffs and landings), owing to its use on short flights. This amounted to more than twice the number of cycles it was designed. Investigators also discovered fatigue cracking around the rivets. The aircraft was an accident waiting to happen.
But another, more harrowing hypothesis about the plane’s catastrophic decompression was put forward by pressure vessel engineer Matt Austin. He claimed that the fuselage may have initially failed as intended, opening a ten-inch square vent. As the pressurised air in the cabin escaped at over 700 mph, CB Lansing became wedged in this hole instead of being thrown clear.
This then created a seal that temporarily blocked the air from escaping, which caused a surge of extreme air pressure back into the plane – known as a fluid hammer or water hammer effect. This caused further damage to the already fragile fuselage before ripping it open like a tin can.
Authorities searched for Lansing’s body for three days. But it was never found. “She was a wonderful employee, a great lady. Our passengers loved her,” Stephanie Ackerman, a spokeswoman for Aloha, later said.
Like many of us, Michelle Honda later described how one of her greatest fears was that she would panic in an emergency and forget her drills and procedures.
However, she remained so calm that she could even play down the severity of the incident to her 11-year old daughter. “I told her – Mommy’s got a mechanical, and I’m not going to be home for a while.”
Michelle Honda, Jane Sato-Tomita and Amy Jones-Brown also praised their passengers. “A lot of attention has been focused on our efforts and the valiant efforts of the pilots, but we would also like to thank the passengers who helped keep us on the aircraft.”
The recollections after the accident became more painful for Honda. Speaking to The Washington Post, she described the mental image of the man with the strip of fuselage stapled to his face, causing tears to well in her eyes. “He said could you take this off? I was trying to pull it away. But I realised the staples had stapled into the side of his face, and his face was being pulled by the staples. I told him I couldn’t help him. At that point, I figured from my first aid training to leave that kind of stuff in”.
Michelle Honda is a true heroine. Despite her injuries and fears, she crawled along the aircraft floor, checking on passengers, making sure they were strapped in, wearing life jackets and comforting the injured. Then on the ground, she led a successful evacuation and even visited her passengers at the hospital twice to check on their progress. Her heroic efforts helped ensure that no passenger lost their lives that day.
She later reacted to her praise with profound humility, declining the label of ‘hero’ and saying she was just ‘doing her job.’ This is why Michelle Honda, Clarabelle ‘CB’ Lansing, Jane Sato-Tomita, Amy Jones Brown, Captain Robert Schornsteiner and First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins join our ‘Angels Of The Sky’.
Events like this make us remember why we do our job and serve as a reminder to the world that we are Aviation’s ‘First Responders.’ We are onboard every flight to ensure safe passage of their journey. When tragedy strikes, we are there to save lives.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air
NB The quotes from Michelle Honda used for this article are taken from an interview in The Washington Post May 18, 1988 ‘A Flight Attendant’s Moments In The Maelstrom’