US officials order grounding of some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes after plane suffers explosion

PORTLAND, Oregon.-

US officials on Saturday ordered the immediate grounding of some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes until they are inspected after an Alaska Airlines plane suffered an explosion that left a gaping hole in the side of the fuselage.

The required inspections last between four and eight hours per aircraft and affect about 171 aircraft worldwide.

Alaska Airlines said in a statement that of the 65 737 Max 9 planes in its fleet, crews had inspected paneled exits as part of recent maintenance work on 18 planes, and they were cleared to return to service on Saturday. Inspections of the remaining planes are expected to conclude in the coming days, the company said.

An Alaska Airlines plane exploded a portion of its fuselage shortly after takeoff 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) over Oregon on Friday night, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing while its 171 passengers and six Crew members put on oxygen masks.

No one was seriously injured when the depressurized plane returned safely to Portland International Airport about 20 minutes after departure.

Passenger Evan Smith said a boy and his mother were sitting in the row where the panel exploded and the boy’s shirt was sucked off the plane.

“There was a big bang in the left rear. A hiss and all the oxygen masks were instantly deployed and everyone put them on,” Smith told KATU-TV.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday it will investigate.

Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said the inspection of the company’s 737-9 plane could take days to complete. They represent a fifth of the company’s 314 aircraft.

“We are working with Boeing and regulators to understand what occurred… and will share updates as more information becomes available,” Minicucci said. “My heart goes out to those who were on this flight. I am so sorry for what they experienced.”

Alaska canceled more than 100 flights, or 15% of its Saturday midday schedule, according to FlightAware. United said the plane inspections would result in about 60 cancellations.

The Port of Portland, which operates the airport, told KPTV that the fire department treated minor injuries at the scene. One person was taken for further treatment but was not seriously injured.

Flight 1282 took off from Portland at 5:07 p.m. Friday for a two-hour flight to Ontario, California. About six minutes later, the piece of fuselage exploded when the plane was about 16,000 feet (4.8 kilometers) away. One of the pilots declared an emergency and requested clearance to descend to 10,000 feet (3 kilometers), the altitude where the air would have enough oxygen to breathe safely.

“We need to return to Portland,” the pilot told the controllers in a calm voice that she maintained throughout the landing.

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

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.

Aviation experts were stunned that a part flew out of a new plane. Anthony Brickhouse, a professor of aerospace safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he had seen fuselage panels coming off airplanes before, but he couldn’t recall any in which passengers “are looking at city lights.”

He said the incident is a reminder for passengers to keep their seatbelts on.

“If there had been a passenger in that window seat whose seat belt had accidentally come off, we would be seeing a totally different story.”

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

The president of the union representing flight attendants at 19 airlines, including Alaska Airlines, praised the crew for keeping passengers safe.

“Flight attendants are emergency trained and we work on every flight for aviation safety first and foremost,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a statement Saturday.

Two Max 8 planes crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people and causing a nearly two-year global grounding of all Max 8 and Max 9 planes. They returned to service only after Boeing made changes to a flight control system. automated flight involved in accidents.

Last year, the FAA told pilots to limit the use of an anti-icing system on the Max in dry conditions because of concerns that the inlets around the engines could overheat and rupture, possibly hitting the plane.

Peak deliveries have been interrupted at times to correct manufacturing defects. The company told airlines in December to inspect planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system.

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Associated Press reporters Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, contributed.

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