Southwest 737 Diverts After a Hole Appears in the Roof

Here’s a weird one for you. Yesterday, Southwest flight 2294 diverted to Charleston, West Virginia when a football-sized hole opened up in the top of the fuselage. And thanks to the magic of Twitter, Share photos on twitter with Twitpicsomeone had posted a picture from inside the cabin right after it happened. Click at left to blow it up.

Southwest 2294 was supposed to go from Nashville to Baltimore. It appears that as it passed through 34,000 feet on the way to its cruise altitude, the hole opened up and the plane lost pressure. The crew sent the plane into a rapid descent (as required in order to get to breathable air) and 7 minutes later they were at 11,000 feet. In case you were wondering, that descent would normally take at least double that amount of time if not more. About 20 minutes after that, they had an uneventful landing in Charleston, West Virginia.

All accounts that I’ve seen have said that Southwest handled this really well. The plane was on the ground just after 6p, and Southwest was able to find a new plane, get it to Charleston (a place they don’t serve) and get back in the air at 945p. They arrived in Baltimore a little more than four hours after original scheduled arrival. An impressive move, indeed.

Now let’s get back to that airplane. This was N387SW, a 737-300 that was delivered brand new to the airline on June 29, 1994. So it’s only about 15 years old. (Fun fact for me: I actually rode that plane on November 18, 1994 from Phoenix to Burbank.)

I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of speculation that compares this relatively minor incident to Aloha Airlines 243, the plane that became a convertible mid-flight. Don’t remember that one? Maybe this will refresh your memory.

Aloha Airlines 243

That’s right. This one truly became a convertible. Incredibly, the only person who died was a flight attendant who wasn’t strapped in. The plane landed safely, and it was impressive enough for a cheesy TV movie to be made about it. But let’s not jump to conclusions about this Southwest flight.

The Aloha incident started with a small hole as this Southwest one did, but then something went wrong. The 737 fuselage is designed so that if a hole does develop, it will remain isolated. That’s what happened with the Southwest flight, and the aircraft maintained structural integrity. For that reason, this was effectively a non-event.

The Aloha flight was on a 19 year old 737-200, an earlier version of the 737 than in the Southwest incident. That aircraft had frequent, short flights in salty and humid conditions that ended up causing corrosion. So on that plane, the initial hole, caused by corrosion, quickly created outdoor seating as the fuselage gave way. That led to some major changes in terms of corrosion inspection.

On the Southwest plane, the question is a more simple one. Since the fuselage stayed intact, the only real question is . . . what caused the hole in the first place? That’s what I’ll be interested in finding out.

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