The 346 passengers were cruising at 29,000 feet Friday when an explosive bang shook the Qantas jumbo jet. The plane descended rapidly. Oxygen masks dropped from...
MANILA, Philippines — The 346 passengers were cruising at 29,000 feet Friday when an explosive bang shook the Qantas jumbo jet. The plane descended rapidly. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling as debris flew through the cabin from a hole that had suddenly appeared in the floor.
It wasn’t until they were safely on the ground after an emergency landing that they realized how lucky they had been: A hole the size of a small car had been ripped into the Boeing 747-400’s metal skin and penetrated the fuselage.
The eerie scene aboard Flight QF 30, captured on a passenger’s cellphone video camera, showed a tense quiet punctuated only by a baby’s cries as passengers sat with oxygen masks on their faces. The jerky footage showed a woman holding tightly to the seat in front of her as rapidly approaching land appeared through a window.
Loud applause and relieved laughter went up as the plane touched down.
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There were no injuries — just a few cases of nausea, airline officials said.
An official of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said initial reports indicated no link to terrorism.
The passengers and crew arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on a different plane this morning and were greeted by hundreds of relieved family members.
Investigators appeared to be focusing on a structural problem.
“From the pictures that we’ve seen out of Manila during the course of the day, it would seem that one of the panels to the outer skin of the aircraft has literally come away from the rest of the fuselage,” Chris Yates, an aviation expert at Jane’s Aviation, told The Associated Press.
The hole appeared to encompass a part of the plane called a fairing, which is meant to smooth out the surface of the fuselage and reduce drag.
The plane had recently undergone a major overhaul, in which engineers discovered a great deal of corrosion inside the cargo hold, The Daily Telegraph of Australia reported in its editions today.
Although metal fatigue has been blamed for similar emergencies in the past, fairings, which are installed on various parts of an aircraft, do not normally have that problem, said Robert W. Mann Jr., an industry consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y.
That raised the question of whether the aircraft might have been damaged on the ground or from inside the cargo compartment, possibly when bags were being loaded, Mann said.
The accident was a blemish for Qantas, which has one of the world’s best safety records and prides itself on never having lost a jet in a major crash.
The passengers, on a flight from London to Melbourne, had just been served a meal after a stopover in Hong Kong when they described hearing a loud bang, then their ears popping as air rushed out the hole. The pilots put the plane into a quick descent to 10,000 feet.
“One hour into the flight there was a big bang, then the plane started going down,” passenger Marina Scaffidi, 39, from Melbourne, told The Associated Press by phone from the airport. “There was wind swirling around the plane and some condensation.”
Pilots are trained to bring a plane down swiftly to 10,000 feet, where passengers and crew can breathe without assistance. Given that the Qantas jet was at 29,000 feet, the plane dropped roughly a mile a minute — “not the kind of descent you would normally subject passengers to,” Mann said.
After the pilots’ initial rapid descent, “the plane kept going down, not too fast, but it was descending,” Scaffidi said, adding that the staff informed passengers they were diverting to Manila. TV screens on the backs of seats allowed them to track their route to the Philippine capital.
“No one was very hysterical,” she said.
June Kane of Melbourne agreed, telling Australia’s ABC radio: “It was absolutely terrifying, but I have to say everyone was very calm.”
Video footage showed people looking almost as if nothing was wrong as they glanced from side to side, their nearly untouched meals still in front of them. The cabin crew continued to work, smiling as they walked down the aisles to reassure nervous passengers.
After the plane touched down safely amid applause, one of the pilots could be heard saying over the intercom: “Fire vehicles and emergency vehicles are going to take a look at us.”
What they found was a stunning sight: a 9-foot-wide hole at the joint where the front of the right wing attaches to the plane. Luggage from the cargo hold strained against the webbing used to keep it from shifting during a flight.
The 747-400 involved in the incident was built in 1991. Boeing is sending representatives to assist with the investigation, said Liz Verdier, a company spokeswoman. She said it was too soon to determine what caused the hole.
Qantas has decades of experience flying the Boeing 747, a model it first ordered in the 1960s. It has more than 50 of the planes, and at one point in the 1980s, Qantas’ entire fleet comprised 747s, which are ideal for the long-haul flights in which the airline specializes.
Older jets are subject to cracking from the repeated stress of pressurization and depressurization, but a 747 typically flies for many hours between landings and has far fewer pressurization cycles than planes on shorter routes.
Union engineers for the airline — who have held several strikes this year to demand pay raises — say that safety is being compromised by low wages and overtime work.
As of December 2007, Qantas was operating 216 aircraft flying to 140 destinations in 37 countries, though it plans to retire some aircraft and cancel some routes — as well as cut 1,500 jobs worldwide — due to skyrocketing fuel prices.
Friday’s incident carried echoes of a 1988 case in which a large section of an older Aloha Airlines jetliner was torn off over Hawaii because of metal fatigue. The pilots were able to land, but a flight attendant died and many of the 89 passengers were seriously injured.
Additional information from The New York Times is included in this report.