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Hero pilot who saved lots of Kiwi lives dies, aged 81

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« on: October 10, 2010, 12:14:20 am »

Pilot who landed damaged 747 dies

In 1989, Captain David Cronin brought the United
jet back to Honolulu after a cargo door blew off.

By GREGG K. KAKESAKO - Honolulu Star Advertiser | 1:30AM HST - Thursday, October 07, 2010

David Cronin, the pilot of a United Airlines Boeing 747 who was able to land the plane at Honolulu Airport after a cargo door blew off while en route from Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand, in 1989, has died. Cronin had been on his second-to-last flight when he captained the flight. — Photo: STAR-ADVERTISER Archive/February 1989.
David Cronin, the pilot of a United Airlines Boeing 747 who was able to land the plane at
Honolulu Airport after a cargo door blew off while en route from Honolulu to Auckland,
New Zealand, in 1989, has died. Cronin had been on his second-to-last flight when
he captained the flight. — Photo: STAR-ADVERTISER Archive/February 1989.

DAVID CRONIN, the hero pilot who landed a crippled United Airlines Boeing 747 in Honolulu 21 years ago, died Monday at his home in Minden, Nevada. He was 81.

Cronin was the captain on United Flight 811, which left Honolulu for Auckland, New Zealand, on February 24, 1989. The 747 was 23,000 feet over the Pacific 85 miles south of Oahu when a forward cargo door blew out, creating a gaping hole in the right side of the aircraft.

The explosion knocked out two of the plane's four engines. Nine passengers seated in business class died when their seats were sucked out of the plane.

Despite the damage, Cronin and his crew were able to make an emergency landing at Honolulu Airport about 22 minutes later. There were 336 passengers and 18 crew members on board.

"He not only brought the plane back safely, but he invented many of the safety procedures used today," Ben Mohide, a passenger on the flight, told the Star-Advertiser yesterday. "He was a remarkable man. He will be missed greatly."

He learned of Cronin's death from a woman who was a purser on Flight 811. Mohide also kept in contact with other survivors living in Australia.

Cronin, who joined United Airlines as a pilot in 1954, was 59 and on his second-to-last flight before mandatory retirement when he captained Flight 811.

His ability to land the plane safely prompted a discussion over raising the mandatory retirement age. The Federal Aviation Administration raised the age to 65 in 2007.

Investigators later determined faulty wiring and a short caused the cargo door to open mid-flight, causing explosive decompression. The jet was 19 years old at the time with more than 15,000 takeoffs and landings.

The cargo door later was recovered from a depth of 17,000 feet.

Mohide, who kept in touch with Cronin over the past two decades, once asked him how he handled the situation, with so many emergencies taking place at the same time.

"I just prayed," Mohide said Cronin replied. "I just prayed and got on with it."

In 1993, Mohide consulted with Cronin before writing the book "Hawaiian Nightmares" about the air disaster. "He helped me get the terminology and details correctly," he said.

Mohide wrote and published the book at the urging of several counselors who told him it would help him get over the guilt of surviving the air disaster.

He last talked with Cronin last year, calling him to explain that illness kept him from attending a 20th anniversary event sponsored by an Australian television station.

"We've exchanged Christmas cards and birthday cards and kept in touch over the years," Mohide added.

Mohide said he has not returned to the islands since his 1989 visit.

The incident occurred nearly a year after Aloha Airlines Flight 243 between Hilo and Honolulu lost the top half of its fuselage on April 28, 1988, but was able to land safely at Maui's Kahului Airport. Flight attendant C.B. Lansing, who was blown out of the airplane, was killed.

After his retirement from United, Cronin flew competitively in sport races in Reno, Nevada.

Funeral services will be held at Hilltop Community Church in Carson City, Nevada, on Monday.


From the Los Angeles Times archives...

They Waited for Death, Then Deliverance!

United Airlines Flight 811

By RON HARRIS and JENIFER WARREN - LA Times Staff Writers | February 25, 1989

HONOLULU — Beverage service was about to begin on board United Airlines Flight 811. As the roomy Boeing 747 climbed skyward early Friday, Beverley Nisbet settled back, reflecting on her Hawaiian vacation and preparing for the long journey home to Hastings, New Zealand.

Suddenly, she heard "a muffled explosion". Then the wall of the plane blew away, taking several rows of passengers along with it.

"Debris was flying everywhere," recalled Nisbet, 50. "My initial reaction was: ‘This was it. I'm not going home’."

Heard Loud Pop

Down the aisle, Sherry Peterson of Denver heard a loud pop-like the noise "a paper bag makes when you pop it" — as a gaping hole was punched in the jumbo jet's thick flank. Travelers seated just two feet from her moments earlier were gone. The suction even pulled her earrings off.

David Birell was jarred awake by the blast. Opening his eyes, he saw an oxygen mask dangling in front of his face. His wife, Lenore, placed her pillow over their daughter's eyes: "I thought we would land in the sea. I thought we would drown."

As the deafening roar of the wind filled the cabin, the jumbo jet plunged from 20,000 to 4,000 feet. But remarkably, passengers remained calm, frozen, no doubt, by shock and the fear of what lay ahead.

They strapped on their life vests. They hugged each other. They gripped the armrests. They prayed.

And they waited.

Forty minutes later, Captain David Cronin brought the wounded craft down at Honolulu International Airport as emergency crews looked on.

"There was a roar of applause," passenger Bruce Lampert, a Denver attorney, said. "I can tell you, that was a long flight back."

Shocked and drained, surviving passengers of Flight 811 recounted their horrifying ordeal above the Pacific on Friday, describing in graphic, chilling detail what many believed were there final moments.

Praise for Pilot

There was hearty praise for the pilot, who returned the disabled plane on two of its four engines, and obvious expressions of relief.

But many shaken passengers vowed never to fly again.

"I thought I was never going to see my children again, and this is the end of our lives," said Brenda, an Auckland, New Zealand, resident who asked that her surname be withheld. "You cannot comprehend what it's like sitting for half an hour, waiting to die. Which way are you going to go? Are you going to drown? Are you going to die in a crash-landing?"

Brenda, who was sitting in the business-class section where the fuselage was torn away, said: "There was a white flash and a loud bang, and then there was just debris being sucked out, parts of the plane peeling away like a banana."

Many passengers said they believed explosives had damaged the plane, and several expected a second blast to rip through the fuselage at any moment and send the plane tumbling downward through the darkness, into the sea.

"I thought it might have been a bomb and I was waiting for another one," Nisbet said. "I think there was a certain amount of relief, if you can call it that, when the plane still seemed to be going on and on."

Watched Seats ‘Fly Out’

Tony Ryan, 31, a Sydney toy salesman, said he was just settling in, when the right side of the plane gave way and he watched several rows of seats "fly out the window."

John Kennedy, 21, also of Sydney, was seated in row 49. He said he saw the right engine start into sparks as debris was blown into it. Later, "the whole engine became engulfed in flame."

"It was like a meteor," Kennedy said. "That's when I thought I was going to die."

Kennedy, like many of the passengers aboard the plane, planned to leave Hawaii on a flight late Friday night. He was not thrilled with the prospect.

"I'm really nervous about flying back home," Kennedy said. "That'll be 12 hours of hell. When something like this happens, your whole life just flashes before your eyes ... parents, girlfriends, friends, things in your life, things you've seen."

Eunice Brooks, 49, and her husband, Raymond, 54, both of Auckland, were seated on the left side of the plane, in row 16.

Mrs. Brooks said she heard a noise and believed "it was the drink trolley hitting the bulkhead." But "when we ended up wearing a window frame around our neck, I knew that wasn't it."

"We heard a bang," Brooks said. "A lot of seats on our side were bent and twisted so badly we found it hard to get out of the plane after we landed. People tried yelling but you couldn't hear each other. It was like talking down a long tunnel. You could see people's mouths moving but you couldn't hear them."

After the blast, Brooks said most of the passengers were forced to duck debris from ceiling panels and one of the lavatories, which broke apart in flight.

‘Giant Wind Tunnel’

Bits of fiberglass formed a chalky dust that swirled around the cabin, which was like "a giant wind tunnel," Ryan said.

Gary Garber of Los Angeles, who was hospitalized with broken fingers and other injuries, said the explosion was "like a dream." He was seated in the center aisle, next to his wife, when "there was an explosion."

Suddenly, "the people who were sitting adjacent to us next to the window ... were blown out of the plane ... We were about 18 inches from flying out the plane. We just hung on for dear life until the pilot made it back."

Although most passengers remained calm, survivors said there was some screaming and shouting in the front of the plane.

One young girl, who was seated near the hole and was bleeding profusely, became hysterical after the blast. Australian Martin Bastock said he and several other passengers took her to a seat away from the open-air section and attempted to calm her.

"All the other people sitting in (her section of the plane) were just gone," Bastock said.

Samantha Moore, 24, a government aide from Easton, Md., said she was dozing when "a swooshing noise" awakened her.

"Panels were flying off the inside of the plane. I thought I was going to die. I put my belt on, got my life jacket on," Moore said in an interview at the Prince Kuhio Hotel, where many of the survivors assembled while awaiting other flights to their various destinations.

Moore praised the crew as "just amazing. One hostess just stood there with the wind pulling at her telling us what to do, telling us to be calm. It helped a lot. She said: ‘Bend over, grab your ankles’. For some reason that was comforting. It showed that someone was in control."

Kenneth Still of San Rafael was going to his native land of New Zealand for a vacation. He said that despite the horror, most passengers remained calm and aided those in need.

‘Helped Each Other’

"It was shattering, but ... the people were tremendous the way they helped each other, handing out life vests, helping put them on. You don't know how much courage people have until something like that happens," Still said.

Ingrid Dietrich, 23, of Newmarket, N. H., agreed. "The one good thing is how close it made us all," she said.

The flight, which originated in San Francisco, was carrying 336 passengers and 19 crew members to Auckland and Sydney, when a 10-by-20 foot chunk of the fuselage was ripped away about 20 minutes after takeoff. Nine people were missing and presumed dead, and 18 passengers were treated at local hospitals, mostly for minor injuries.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Robert Feldman and his wife, Edith, were figuring luck was with them Friday. The couple, who hail from Philadelphia, were headed for an insurance agents conference in Sydney and had booked seats on Flight 811.

But at the last moment, Robert Feldman's employer, Massachusetts General Life Insurance, put him on another plane.

Despite the twist of fate, Feldman took a decidedly nonchalant attitude about it all in an interview at LAX. "It happens," he said of the tragedy off Honolulu. "We do a lot of flying."

Continue Their Journey

In the early evening hours, about 200 of Flight 811's passengers began to board a special 747 that United had flown to Honolulu to allow them to continue their journey to Auckland and Sydney.

There was decided ambivalence.

Roger White, 23, a television news anchorman in Newcastle, Australia, said he wasn't worried.

"It's a 10 million-to-1 chance that it will happen again," he said. Then he added: "But there is still that ‘1’ factor that keeps you a little nervous."

John Kennedy's father, Melbourne surgeon Jack Kennedy, headed for the gate at the final boarding call and smiled to reporters.

"Well, here we go again," he said.

Missing was Nancy Gentry, 58, of South Bend, Ind., who had been headed to Auckland to see her son. She had no intention of flying again so soon.

"It really got to me," she said earlier. "The doctor says I can't leave for two days. I know I have to fly in order to get out of here, but I don't know whether to fly to Auckland or to fly back home."


Staff writer Eric Malnic in Honolulu contributed to this story.

Ron Harris reported from Honolulu and Jenifer Warren from Los Angeles.





Flight 811: the untold story

“And as they're starting to serve champagne,
To the folks at the front of the plane,
I can hear the engines roaring, we're on our way...”

— ‘Flying Home’, Chris de Burgh.

By SHELLEY BRIDGEMAN - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 22 February 2009

Until now Shelley Bridgeman (left), had only told three people of her connection to the accident that killed her boyfriend, Lee Campbell (right). Until now Shelley Bridgeman (left), had only told three people of her connection to the accident that killed her boyfriend, Lee Campbell (right).
Until now Shelley Bridgeman (left), had only told three people of her connection to the accident that killed her boyfriend, Lee Campbell (right).

FOR MY twenty-fourth birthday Lee gave me a Chris de Burgh audio tape I'd been coveting. Chris de Burgh probably wasn't cool and fashionable, even back in the 1980s; I've always had terrible taste in music. Lee's was way better, U2's Rattle and Hum being his album of choice at the time. But still, I loved this Chris de Burgh tape and listened to it religiously while Lee was away on a two-week overseas business trip which began five days after my birthday. We'd been going out for almost a year: we met in 1987 while we were both working in the advertising department of Wellington-based electrical appliance retailer LV Martin & Son.

Of course, I didn't know at the time how eerily prescient the lyrics of these songs would turn out to be. Was Chris de Burgh simply obsessed with aeroplanes, flying, business class, loss and heading homewards? Or did his songs actually foretell the fact that Lee would be killed aboard his Auckland-bound flight?

The accident occurred shortly after take-off from Honolulu International Airport, in the early hours of February 24, 1989, local time. Susan Campbell, Lee's grief-stricken mother, will later say that she had a premonition — a vivid dream that he was standing by her bed — at the moment of Lee's death. A few hours later she heard about the accident on a radio report. "My blood just ran cold. I knew he was dead," she said in a subsequent television documentary.

“I love the night, I love the night,
I love the element of danger and the ecstasy of flight...”

— ‘The Ecstasy of Flight’, Chris de Burgh.

I SPENT THE nights immediately following the accident at Lee's parents' home in Miramar, Wellington. I slept in his boyhood bedroom. As the eldest of three children, Lee had been given first dibs on choosing a room. He chose the smallest — purely because it offered a bird's eye view of the planes landing and taking off from Wellington airport. With a brain addled by the sheer surrealism of the situation, it was easy to take this as some sort of sign. A sign of what, though, we struggled to articulate. And, weirdly, it seemed that Lee himself had painted his destiny years before. A dab hand with a paint brush, he'd covered the walls of his bedroom with large and dramatic palms trees and stars twinkling in a dark night sky. Of course, to us the palm trees were Hawaii and the sky was where he died. It was spooky to say the least.

“I think we blew a door...”

— First Officer, United Airlines Flight 811, transcript of cockpit voice recorder.

THEY DID indeed blow a door. Thanks to wiring problems or a faulty electrical switch, the forward cargo door opened in flight, causing a hole measuring about 3m by 4.5m in the fuselage of the 18-year-old Boeing 747-122 aircraft. It was a miracle that the air crew, led by Captain David Cronin, a veteran pilot with almost 30,000 flying hours under his belt and only a month or two from mandatory retirement, were able to make an emergency landing back at the airport.

Maintenance records would show a history of difficulties with the locking of this cargo door, which ended up on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It was eventually retrieved in two pieces by the US Navy in 1990 and then shipped to Seattle, Washington, for examination.

As the crippled aircraft was making its emergency descent, the flight crew received this message over the radio: "United eight eleven I need souls on board if you have it." The flight engineer replied that he didn't know how many people were on board and that he didn't have the paperwork in front of him. As it turns out, the paperwork would have been tragically out of date.

“Some people are probably gone...”

— Flight Engineer, United Airlines Flight 811, transcript of cockpit voice recorder.

PEOPLE WERE definitely gone. When the aircraft left Honolulu, there were three flight crew, 15 cabin attendants and 337 passengers on board. But nine people, including 24-year-old Lee, were lost in the decompression explosion that occurred when the cargo door ripped off. By now, there were only 328 passengers.

A couple of days after the accident, Lee's luggage was delivered home by representatives from United Airlines. A woman called Stephanie had flown from Chicago to Wellington, accompanied by men in suits and dark sunglasses. In any other circumstances it would be a fantastic example of personalised customer service. Lost luggage is usually the worst frustration an airline inflicts on its passengers. In this instance they'd permanently mislaid a much-loved son but, hey, at least they returned his luggage safe and sound. Only the suitcases that were in the hold, mind you. Lee's carry-on baggage was lost with him.

It's funny the things you think about. At one stage, we idly discussed whether the airline would or should provide a refund for the price of Lee's air ticket — since it hadn't actually managed to give him passage from Los Angeles to Auckland as it had contracted to do.

A United Airlines television advertisement that subsequently aired in New Zealand showed a flight attendant welcoming a passenger on board and asking her where she was going. The answer was: home. The catchphrase was something along the lines of "Home: Everyone's favourite destination". We wondered whether the implication that the airline was in the business of transporting people safely home constituted false advertising.

A few days after the accident I received a postcard Lee had sent from Frankfurt's Intercontinental hotel two weeks earlier. He wrote: "Dear Shelley, I have arrived here. The flight was 26 hours. Business class is cushy. It is now 8.30 at night ... Visited red light district but couldn't find anything as lovely as you so came back to the hotel. Love from Lee."

Nine passengers, who were seated in seats 8H, 9FGH, 10GH, 11GH and 12H, were ejected from the fuselage and were not found; and thus, are assumed to have been fatally injured in the accident.

— National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992

THE DECOMPRESSION explosion blew most of the victims' seats out along with them. United Airlines offered to fly the Campbell family first class to Honolulu to view the damaged aircraft. The invitation was extended to me but I declined. This would be the first of many US trips Susan and Kevin, Lee's parents, undertook as they tirelessly sought to discover all the facts surrounding the accident; the narrator on the television documentary Unlocking Disaster — Flight 811 described their quest as "a relentless investigation to uncover the full, disturbing truth".

We slept fitfully in the Campbell household in those early days. If you woke in the night you could put money on the fact that another family member was roaming the hallway or pacing in the lounge. In the wee small hours of one morning, Susan and I drank cups of tea with nutty, branny, oat-style cookies someone had kindly delivered. These circular meals sustained me for days. Another night, Fiona, Lee's sister, saw my bedside light was on and paid a visit. We ended up sharing a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. These confections had been in one of Lee's suitcases and Susan, assuming a role no mother should have to assume, had decreed that these were a gift Lee had purchased for me. It seemed absurd to keep them as some sort of memento when they'd been designed for eating, so Fiona and I unceremoniously polished them off. Susan had also decided that a pink sweatshirt in Lee's luggage was intended for his flatmate. I was equally certain it had really been for me but I kept this to myself.

Question: Why are United Airlines' first class passengers annoyed?
Answer: Because they let the business class passengers off first.

— Anonymous, airline joke.

I HEARD THIS in an Auckland bar a few years after Lee was killed. The young woman who told it was first disbelieving and then horrified when my two friends advised her that it had been my boyfriend who was killed in the accident that spawned this joke. To this day, I've only ever told three people of my personal connection to the ill-fated United flight. It's not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation. Along with sex, politics and religion, it's a topic best avoided at polite dinner parties. "Did you know my last boyfriend was sucked out of a plane at twenty-two thousand feet? Could someone pass the rocket and parmesan salad, please?" That would put something of a dampener on even the most convivial evening.

So why share the story now? It was all quite raw for a long time and, not that I couldn't have written about it before, I think it would have been harder to sift the "interesting" stuff from the "ordinary" stuff that accompanies any loss. I've always felt that I never made any specific tangible response to the event. While Lee's parents went on their quest for answers, I did nothing. Nothing kind of felt right until I woke up a few weeks ago and simply decided to write about it — out of the blue. There was no triggering point except perhaps an awareness of the anniversary approaching. If I wasn't ready now, when exactly would I be? And as a journalist, there was probably some irony that I spend my time telling other people's stories yet hadn't told this one.

An extensive air and sea search for the passengers was unsuccessful.

— National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992.

ALMOST 20 years on, it was a relief to discover that a search had taken place. I hadn't known that at the time. My initial impression was that Lee could have wafted gently down through the night sky still strapped in his business-class seat — maybe even clutching a foil pack of airline peanuts — to the balmy waters below. The more realistic prospect dawned on me later when there was talk of doing DNA testing on the matter clogging up the Pratt and Whitney engine. It was best not to think about it.

Subsequent eyewitness reports from cabin crew suggested that he'd been sleeping with a complimentary eye-mask on at the time. I think that was supposed to be a comfort. Kevin Campbell's comment on the television documentary brought it all into chilling perspective: "We really would have preferred that it was Lee that went through the engine because it would have been an immediate death, whereas it was a four-minute fall down to the ocean, and we know that the people could have been alive as they were falling — and when you think about that, that's just horrific."

Also contributing to the accident was a lack of timely corrective actions by Boeing and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] following a 1987 cargo door opening incident on a Pan Am B-747.

— National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report, March 18, 1992.

THE PAN AM incident led to Boeing issuing a service bulletin detailing some modifications that needed to be made to the latch locking systems on the cargo doors.

Airlines were given until January 1990 to complete the work, which had yet to be undertaken on the United Airlines 811 aircraft at the time of the accident. It was "one of the most shocking cases of a known design flaw being ignored for years", according to Unlocking Disaster — Flight 811. In his book Unfriendly Skies: 20th and 21st Centuries, author Rodney Stich reveals the airline had procrastinated over a crucial adjustment that would have cost just $US3027. Following the United Airlines accident, the FAA gave airlines just 30 days to comply with the directive.

The aircraft was successfully repaired, re-registered as N4724U, and returned to service in 1990.

— Wikipedia.

THE REPAIR is said to have cost $US14 million. The plane was on-sold to Air Dabia, a Gambia-based airline, which used it to ferry British holiday-makers to and from West Africa. Evidently it was then placed in storage until 2004 when it was broken up for spare parts — to the collective relief of budget travellers the world over.


• Shelley Bridgeman moved to Auckland two years after the accident and worked in marketing and advertising before gaining her journalism qualifications at the University of Canterbury. She is now a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines, including NZ House & Garden. She is married and has one daughter.

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