In the year since the roof ripped off an Aloha Airlines jet and a flight attendant plunged to her death, widespread changes have occurred in the industry that once believed a maintained aircraft could fly forever.
The Boeing 737 involved had rolled off the assembly line in 1969 and had 89,000 cycles - takeoffs and landings - in a corrosive salt-air environment.The industry and the Federal Aviation Administration had believed that metal fatigue in older airplanes, especially cracking around rivets and corrosion, could be discovered in regular visual inspections.
However, in the Aloha case, investigators think dozens of minute cracks - invisible to the human eye - connected and allowed a piece of fuselage to blow out in an explosive decompression at 24,000 feet, followed by a whole section of the plane.
The images from the April 28, 1988, accident were unforgettable: the jet, with a 18-foot chunk of its upper fuselage gone, sitting on the runway of Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian Island of Maui; stunned passengers milling around while flight attendants tried to comfort them; passengers shaking the hands of the pilot and co-pilot who somehow landed the crippled jet safely.
Officials were amazed that there was only one fatality, although 61 passengers were injured.
Quickly the headlines changed from "Terror in Paradise," to "Miracle Over Maui." Experts marveled at the skill of the captain, Robert Schornstheimer, and the co-pilot, Madeline "Mimi" Tompkins, since promoted to captain, and praised them for averting a much worse disaster. And they wondered, of course, what could cause the 19-year-old jet to break apart.
"I saw the original hole, the smaller one before the whole thing ripped open," said passenger Arlo Clippinger, 51, of Tucson, Ariz. "I still dream about that hole."
After the accident, a task force of aviation industry and government safety experts recommended mandatory structural overhauls on older airliners. The average age of the nearly 3,000 U.S. airliners is about 13 years, with many planes more than 15 years old.
The National Transportation Safety Board report on the "in-flight roof separation" is not due until next month.
"The accident caused everyone to question the industry folklore that a plane could fly forever," said A. Maurice Myers, president of Aloha Airlines.