Southwest 737 Diverts After a Hole Appears in the Roof

Accidents/Incidents, Southwest

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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18 comments on “Southwest 737 Diverts After a Hole Appears in the Roof

  1. Well, we already have the requisite over-the-top hysterical passernger response:

    “”Literally the whole top of the plane ripped off,” Benson said”

    Really…..the WHOLE TOP you say?

    “My friend Julie asked the attendant, ‘Are we gonna land at the airport?’ and she said, ‘no we aren’t going to make it to the airport,'” Benson said.”

    Did you hear that? We’re NOT GOING TO MAKE IT……..well, to OUR ORIGINAL airport presumably……

    Now it begins….

  2. *****(Fun fact for me: I actually rode that plane on November 18, 1994 from Phoenix to Burbank.)******

    You mean you have been keeping track of each plane you have flown on since at least 1994?

    At least in this case the plane landed safely and everyone was ok. Now it’s time for the experts to do their job to see what happen and how to makes things safer, and for the ambulance chasing lawyers to round of passengers to begin lawsuits against Southwest, Boeing, and anyone else they can think of.

  3. “Benson said he had to calm his children down after a rough takeoff.”

    Poor guy. I’m sure the Coke was flat, the peanuts stale, and the drive to BNA that morning congested as well.

  4. Cranky,

    The picture you posted seems to be the best I’ve seen on this. Looks like a plug simply popped. Rounded edges, nothing jagged that would lead you to believe it was some random explosion in the fuselage.

    I have no, no expertise on this, but some other sites show the outside of the WN 737s with a line of what looks like plugs (sort of like the shape of a passenger window) running the length of the planes. Something to do with a “fix” following the Aloha incident.

    In any event, it always makes be a little leery about these WN 737s and all those regionals that are constantly going up and down, up and down, pressurizing, de-pressurizing, cycle after cycle, day after day. I hope the carriers are checking!

  5. David SF – Sad but true. Yes, I have been keeping track of every airplane I’ve been on since July 1994. I just wish I had started earlier. The Pan Am A310,
    Pan Am 747s, Western DC-10, PSA MD-80s, SAS DC-10 and more would have been great to have recorded.

    JK – Southwest already inspected its entire fleet of 737-300s and didn’t find anything else wrong, so this could have been an isolated incident. The investigation will unquestionably turn up more info.

  6. “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.”

    Yep – I think it is the most impressive part…not sure the same would happen on Unit…er..other major airlines.

  7. Boeing use to build the 737-200s and 300s as sister ships. Maybe they still do? I dont know. Anyway. When I worked for America West in the mid 90s.. I remember being told that HP had the sister ship to the one the Aloha “convertable” one, mentioned I flew on it many times.

    I do not record the tail number of the 100s of flights ive been on.. But I will say this. Ive been on many patched up planes. CO use to patch their 727s and DC10s like crazy! And it was always a treat to see this upon boarding…lol Remember that one UA 747 that ripped open in midflight?. Well it was patched up and put back into service. I wrote the tail number down. Never encountered that craft…but was adament, I would never fly on it! :)

  8. Brie – Nice try to include some spam, but please do not do it again or you will be blocked as a commenter. I have removed the link.

    jordan – I don’t know anything about sister ships, but it’s been a long time since Boeing built the 737-200 or -300. I know that America West actually operated a couple of ex-Aloha aircraft. Those were actual convertibles – quick change 737-300s that could originally go cargo or passenger.

  9. I think the “fluid hammer” theory of AQ 243 warrants mentioning here, too. That theory states that a small square hole was the initial failure…but the pressure spike caused by fluid hammer resulted in the secondary burst in the fuselage.

  10. Poor guy. I’m sure the Coke was flat, the peanuts stale, and the
    drive to BNA that morning congested as well.

    To which the stews replied:
    “Nuts to the man in 21D.”
    “You said it!”
    BTW, you’re sure the hole was in the top of the fuselage and not in the starboard can? Cause then you’d have had your perp–D.O. Guerrero in 23A, who was seated next to Ada Quonsett (the stowaway) and Whit Bissell…oooh, Whit Bissell!

    OK, I’m caught in a movie time warp, sorry.

    CF, no need for your “sad but true”–there are quite a few airplane geeks who record tail numbers of A/C they fly on. Not to mention airline, flight number, A/C type (yes, with the Boeing customer number), ORG/DES, runways used, out/off/on/in times, seat number…what did I leave out?
    (But you knew all that!)

    Similar to radio/TV geeks who photograph tower sites, have their car radio presets (FM and AM) in ascending order by frequency, left to right, and can name that tune in three notes (just as long as it’s not “Brown Eyed Girl” for the 8000th time).

  11. After these incidents it may be time to set limit for the years of service a commuter aircraft that constantly changes pressure landing and taking off on countless daily flights day after day. This type of stress on any aircraft appears to shorten the safe-life of an aircraft. Now that the non-consumer friendly Bush regime is out of DC perhaps the current administration will make the FAA check into this and study the facts. Perhaps they will actually do something to protect consumers who use these types of aircraft. I sure hope so. One incident is one too many!

  12. Consumer Mike – I’ve toured aircraft maintenance facilities where they do major overhaul work. Quite frankly, after seeing what they change out I’m not worried about number of cycles or how old the aircraft is. All I care is that the airframe receives the proper maintenace and at the proper intervals. Perhaps the # of cycles between major service should be reduced but as I was told on one tour…”If you maintained your car per FAA regulations you’d only need one vehicle for your entire life.” Seems to be about right as NW is still flying DC-9’s that were delivered in the early 70’s, close to 40 years ago!

  13. Consumer Mike – You are quickly jumping to conclusions here and there’s no reason to do so. We have no idea what caused this hole to open up. It is not necessarily related to age or corrosion of any sort. The NTSB will certainly get to the bottom of this, and if there are real concerns, then they will modify maintenance procedures as necessary. But the age of the aircraft does not need to be regulated simply because of this.

  14. NW – now Delta – flies some DC9s from the mid 60s. I flew one from MSP to ORD that had the mattress tag at the bottom right of entry that said 3/66.

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