Federal investigators probing last week’s near-disastrous Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 fuselage panel blowout are looking into the possibility that the hardware that was supposed to keep it secured was never installed in the first place.
National Transportation Safety Board officials made the revelation during a Monday night press conference, hours after United Airlines reported finding loose bolts and “installation issues” on some Boeing 737 MAX 9 jetliners in the wake of Friday evening’s emergency landing of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 at Portland International Airport.
Officials told reporters the door plug came off the plane minutes after it took off from PDX, causing the cabin pressure to precipitously drop, and creating the terrifying “loud” and “windy” conditions that led a young passenger sitting next to the missing door to reportedly lose his shirt as he was held down by his mother.
The large panel that was blown off the plane was located where an emergency exit door would normally be on a plane with more seats, and should have been secured by stop bolts and 12 interlocking pins and pads, investigators said.
“The exam to date has shown that the door did in fact translate upwards, all 12 stops became disengaged, allowing it to blow out of the fuselage,” said NTSB Aerospace Engineer Clint Crookshanks.
“We found that both guide tracks on the plug were fractured… we have not yet recovered the four bolts … that restrain it from its vertical movement, and we have not determined if they existed there,” Crookshanks continued.
Investigators were looking to see if the bolts “were there, or … if they came out during the… violent explosive decompression event,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy added.
The jet door plug that blew off the plane, followed by passengers’ personal items, was found by a Portland science teacher in his backyard Sunday, a discovery which investigators hope will offer more clues once it arrives at the NTSB’s Washington, DC laboratory.
The NTSB said that the plane’s “very emotional” flight attendants were in counseling after being traumatized by the potentially deadly incident, which left no one seriously injured.
The crew members reported “pretty significant crew communications challenges during the event,” officials explained.
“They didn’t know what was occurring. They were certainly concerned, they stated, about the four unaccompanied minors and their focus was on them and the three lap children at the time,” Homendy said
“The flight attendants mentioned that the… communication was so poor that they felt like they, they really needed guidance and information, and it was, it was [a] pretty terrifying event.”
The plane’s captain and first officer also told investigators that the cockpit door flew open during the incident and said they heard a bang and felt pressure changes in their ears.
A laminated flight checklist even blew into the cabin before a flight attendant was able to close the cockpit door, officials revealed.
“They had trouble communicating… they had trouble hearing each other, they had trouble hearing air traffic control and they had trouble communicating throughout the event,” Homendy said.
Investigators did not connect the investigation to the loose bolts found on several United Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets, saying they were solely focused on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.
The NTSB said it expected its investigation to take between a year and 18 months.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday temporarily grounded some 170 of the planes internationally for inspections in the wake of the spine-tingling snafu.
All Boeing MAX jets were grounded for two years after two crashes on Indonesia’s Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people.
Boeing’s President and CEO Dave Calhoun had scheduled a companywide safety meeting Tuesday.
“While we’ve made progress in strengthening our safety management and quality control systems and processes in the last few years, situations like this are a reminder that we must remain focused on continuing to improve every day,” Calhoun told his staffers.