United investigation finds Boeing door plugs had loose bolts

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United Airlines investigators found loose bolts and other door plug installation issues when investigating their fleet of Boeing 737 Max 9s — potential clues to indicate how the same piece of fuselage blew out on a recent Alaska Airlines flight.

Both United and Alaska have grounded their fleets of the commercial airplanes and canceled hundreds of flights in the aftermath of the incident, which occurred on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 from Portland International Airport to Ontario on Friday night.

The aircraft had reached about 16,000 feet elevation when the cabin underwent “explosive decompression,” according to Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and the door plug burst off the side of the plane.

Among revelations at a Sunday night news conference, the NTSB chief said that the door plug the agency had been searching for had been found by a Portland, Ore., teacher in his backyard.

“Thank you, Bob,” Homendy said.

The teacher, referred to only by his first name, contacted the NTSB via email and sent two photos of the piece of fuselage, which was described as a 63-pound piece of the plane that is yellow-green in color on one side and white on the other. Two cellphones that plummeted from the aircraft also were found in the vicinity.

In addition, Homendy said that before Friday’s midair incident, the plane had been restricted from long flights over water because of a warning light that had gone off at least three times in the last month, possibly indicating a pressurization problem on the aircraft.

“We don’t know that there was any correlation” between the warning lights and what happened during Friday night’s flight, Homendy said. But Alaska Airlines had restricted that jet from transcontinental routes so that the plane could return to an airport during an emergency, she said.

Because the pressurization light had gone off several times, additional maintenance was ordered on the plane, but it had not yet been performed before Friday’s flight.

Federal officials also pointed out a major obstacle to the investigation Sunday night: The cockpit voice recorder, or black box, from the Friday night flight was erased.

Homendy said that after the aircraft returned to Portland International Airport, no one pulled the circuit breaker on the cockpit voice recorder or otherwise preserved the audio, which holds only its most recent two hours.

“The cockpit voice recorder was completely overwritten. There was nothing on the cockpit voice recorder,” Homendy said.

Homendy was visibly exasperated by the loss of the black box recording. She noted that it was a “very chaotic event” when the plane landed and officials set up an emergency operations center.

“The maintenance team went out to get [the cockpit voice recorder], but it was right at about the two-hour mark,” she said, later adding: “We have nothing.”

She pointed to about 10 other recent incidents when voice recorders were overwritten, including a 2017 near-catastrophe at San Francisco’s airport when an Air Canada plane almost landed on a taxiway and would have collided with other jets carrying about 1,000 passengers. She called on the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to implement a rule that would require new and existing planes to store audio for 25 hours, which aligns with European audio-retention practices.

“If that communication is not recorded, that is unfortunately a loss for us and a loss for FAA and a loss for safety,” she said, “because that information is key.”

Alaska Airlines did not respond to questions about the cockpit voice recorder or whether the airline would voluntarily install recorders that store audio for 25 hours.

Asked to offer any theories about what caused the plane’s door plug to blow off, Homendy demurred.

“Right now we are in a fact-finding phase of the investigation,” the NTSB chief said, adding that staff were poring over the Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft for clues and planned to send key components to a lab to analyze any fractures, paint marks and shearing that could help explain what happened.

Surveying the aircraft, officials have found damage in more than a dozen rows inside but have not identified any structural damage to the aircraft. The “plug” that blew off the plane was covering an unused emergency exit opening near Rows 25 and 26, and was essentially bolted to the aircraft structure. The plug was covered in paneling and included a window so that, from inside the cabin, it would appear indistinguishable from other rows.

On Monday, investigators had planned to examine the door plug on the other side of Rows 25 and 26 to try to determine what caused the other plug to blow off.

Homendy praised the flight attendants and pilots for a quick response in an environment that was terrifying and marred by communication problems.

Passengers and crew reported hearing “a bang,” she said, when the “explosive decompression” occurred after the plug was expelled from the fuselage.

“It was described as chaos, very loud,” she said. The cockpit door flew open, and the captain partly lost and first officer completely lost their respective headsets.

“Flight attendants reported that it was difficult to get information from the flight deck, and the flight deck was also having difficulty communicating,” Homendy said.

The plane had six crew members and 171 passengers, including three babies and four unaccompanied minors.

“The flight attendants were very focused on what was going on with those children. Were they safe? Were they secure?”

In a stroke of luck, two seats were empty directly next to the spot where the hole opened in the plane.

Seats in that area showed signs of damage, including sheared oxygen masks, lost headrests and torquing.

“There was a lot of damage to the interior paneling and trim,” she said. “It must have been a terrifying event to experience.”

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