The crew of United Airlines Flight 811 discussed Friday for the first time in public how they cooly nursed a crippled Boeing 747 back to Honolulu after a cargo door and section of fuselage blew off in midair.
Pilot David Cronin, 59, a 35-year United veteran, and co-pilot Al Slader, 46, and flight engineer Mark Thomas, 45, said at an Air Line Pilots Association news conference that during last Friday's incident at 23,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean they were too busy to be afraid."I was too busy to think about myself at that point," Cronin said. "I really wasn't thinking about myself. There were too many things to consider, too many important decisions to make."
Cronin said that when the cargo door blew off, taking with it a 10-by-40 foot section of the airliner's skin and nine business class passengers, "We heard a tremendous explosion, and the craft violently reacted." Decompression occurs "in the blink of an eye," Slader said. "The explosion is awesome."
"There was a lot of yawing and shuddering," Cronin said. "I knew we had explosive decompression because there was lots of mist in the cockpit. We went for our oxygen masks, but there was no oxygen." It was later determined that oxygen lines were cut during the mishap.
The crew said it was fortunate that the incident did not occur later in the flight, in higher, thinner air.
"At 23,000 feet we had quite a bit of working time," Cronin said. "At our rate of descent I had complete confidence that oxygen would not be a problem.
"So we tossed our masks over our shoulders (and) called to ask for emergency descent," Cronin, who turns 60 on March 23 and faces mandatory retirement, said.
Cronin sent Thomas back to inspect the passenger cabin while he and Slader dumped fuel and tried to keep the craft at a steady descent, in predawn darkness and heavy clouds.
"When I went downstairs, I knew we had a serious problem," Thomas said. "I looked outside . . . it was just like looking through a picture window. I could see the wing and both engines, at that time No. 4 was in flames.
"The flight attendants had just done a tremendous job," Thomas said. "Everyone was in their seats, wearing their life vests. I saw no panic at all." Thomas said at that point he realized there was a section of seats missing.
Back in the cockpit, Slader said, "We referred, really, to survival instinct. We didn't follow procedures by the book. We did whatever was necessary to keep the airplane flying, and nothing more."
For instance, "the book" calls for pilots to lower the landing gear immediately. Cronin did not, fearing the gear would "drag" and send the airplane into the water.
"Once the gear is down, you've got to land," Cronin said.
By this time, less than a minute after the door blew off, the pilot was aware that engine No. 3 was blown and engine No. 4 was on fire.
"I could see the reflection of the flames in the window," Cronin said.
"We were very heavy when the incident occurred," he said. "We reached 15,000 or 12,000 feet with both engines cut and decided to slow our descent, but we were unable to hold altitude.
Cronin said he was not sure whether the airplane would make it back to Hawaii or have to land in the ocean, so he called to ask for an intercept. The tower in Honolulu told Cronin that Coast Guard planes and helicopters were already en route to meet the 747.
The craft broke through the clouds at about 4,000 feet and Cronin was able to slow the descent to 50 feet per minute. About 1,500 feet from the runway, Cronin said, he gingerly pushed the button to lower the landing gear. It worked perfectly.
"It was as smooth a landing as I've ever sat through," Slader said.
All three fliers credited their extensive training with enabling them to keep their cool while trying to save the 18-year-old plane, which had 336 passengers and 18 crew members on board and landed with nine fewer passengers.
Cronin is scheduled to make one final flight for United. It will be next week, he said, and it will be on a 747. Slader said not enough credit has been given to the plane involved in Flight 811. "The airplane was able to get back," Slader said. "The 747 is one heck of an aircraft."