Boeing plane that suffered an in-flight explosion restricted due to warning light concerns

PORTLAND, Oregon.-

The Boeing plane that suffered an explosion in flight over Oregon was not being used for flights to Hawaii after a warning light that could have indicated a pressurization problem came on on three different flights, a federal official said Sunday.

Alaska Airlines decided to restrict long flights over water so the plane “could return very quickly to an airport” if the warning light reappeared, said Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Homendy warned that the pressurization light could be unrelated to Friday’s incident in which a plug covering an unused exit door exploded Boeing 737 Max 9 while sailing about three miles (4.8 kilometers) over Oregon.

The warning light came on during three previous flights: Dec. 7, Jan. 3 and Jan. 4, the day before the door plug broke. Homendy said he did not have all the details about the Dec. 7 incident, but specified that the light came on during a flight on Jan. 3 and on Jan. 4 after the plane landed.

The NTSB said the missing door stopper was found Sunday near Portland, Oregon, by a school teacher (for now known only as Bob), who discovered it in his backyard and sent two photographs to the safety board. . Investigators will examine the plug, which measures 26 by 48 inches (66 by 121 centimeters) and weighs 63 pounds (28.5 kilograms), for signs of how it came loose.

Investigators will not have the benefit of hearing what happened in the cockpit during the flight. The cockpit voice recorder, one of two so-called black boxes, recorded the sounds of the flight after two hours, Homendy said.

At a news conference Sunday night, Homendy provided new details about the chaotic scene that unfolded on the plane. The explosive blast of air damaged several rows of seats and ripped insulation from the walls. The cabin door flew open and collided with the bathroom door.

The force tore off the co-pilot’s headphones and the captain lost part of her headphones. A quick reference checklist kept within reach of the pilots flew out of the open cockpit, Homendy said.

However, the plane returned to Portland and none of the 171 passengers and six crew members were seriously injured.

Hours after the incident, the FAA ordered the grounding of 171 of the 218 Max 9s in operation, including all those used by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, until they can be inspected. Airlines were still waiting Sunday for details on how to conduct inspections.

Alaska Airlines, which has 65 Max 9s, and United, with 79, are the only U.S. airlines that fly that particular model of the 737, Boeing’s workhorse. United said it was waiting for Boeing to issue a “multi-operator message,” which is a Service Bulletin used when multiple airlines need to perform similar work on a particular type of plane.

Boeing was working on the bulletin but had not yet submitted it to the FAA for review and approval, according to a person familiar with the situation. Producing a detailed technical bulletin typically takes a couple of days, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a matter the company and regulators have not discussed publicly.

Boeing declined to comment.

Without some of their planes, cancellations began to pile up at the two airlines. Alaska Airlines said it canceled 170 flights – more than a fifth of its schedule – by mid-afternoon on the West Coast due to flight suspensions, while United had canceled about 180 flights and salvaged others by finding different planes.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she agreed with the decision to ground the Max 9.

“Aviation production has to meet a gold standard, including quality control inspections and strong FAA oversight,” he said in a statement.

Before the discovery of the missing plug, the NTSB had pleaded with residents of an area west of Portland called Cedar Hills to be on the lookout for the object.

On Sunday, people walked through dense bushes wedged between busy roads and a light rail station. Adam Pirkle said he rode 14 miles (22 kilometers) on his bike through the bush.

“I’ve been watching the flight path, I was watching the winds,” he said. “I’ve been trying to focus on the wooded areas.”

Before the schoolteacher named Bob found the missing door plug, searchers located two mobile phones that appeared to have belonged to passengers on Friday’s terrifying flight. One was discovered in a yard and the other on the side of a road. Both were turned over to the NTSB, which promised to return them to their owners.

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland at 5:07 p.m. Friday for a two-hour trip to Ontario, California. About six minutes later, the piece of fuselage exploded as the plane climbed to about 16,000 feet (4.8 kilometers).

one of the pilots declared an emergency and asked for permission to descend to 10,000 feet (3 kilometers), where the air would be rich enough for passengers to breathe without oxygen masks.

Videos posted online by passengers showed a gaping hole where the paneled door used to be. They applauded when the plane landed safely about 13 minutes after the explosion. Firefighters walked down the aisle and asked passengers to remain in their seats while they treated the injured.

It was very fortunate that the plane had not yet reached cruising altitude, when passengers and flight attendants could be walking around the cabin, Homendy said.

The plane involved rolled off the assembly line and received its certification two months ago, according to online FAA records. It has been on 145 flights since entering commercial service on Nov. 11, said FlightRadar24, another tracking service. The flight from Portland was the third of the day.

The Max is the newest version of Boeing’s venerable 737, a twin-engine, single-aisle airliner frequently used on domestic flights in the United States. The aircraft entered service in May 2017.

Two Max 8 planes crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people. All Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft were grounded worldwide for nearly two years until Boeing made changes to an automated flight control system implicated in the crashes.

The Max has been plagued by other problems, including manufacturing flaws, concerns about overheating that led the FAA to tell pilots to limit use of an anti-icing system and a possible loose bolt in the rudder system.

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Koenig reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.

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