A United Airlines jumbo jet bound for Tokyo with 357 people aboard was forced to return to Manila on Saturday morning when a 10-by-4-foot panel on the right wing tore off over the Pacific Ocean less than an hour into the flight.
The Boeing 747 landed safely at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and none of the 340 passengers or 17 crew members were injured, airport and airline officials said.
However, spokesmen from United Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration both said the accident did not affect the plane’s ability to fly.
Russell Mack, a spokesman at United’s Chicago headquarters, said the missing section “was a nonstructural, fiberglass panel that separated from the rear portion of the right wing.” He also said that the plane is being repaired and will return to service today.
Aircraft Engineer Aboard
Jonathan Miller, a 50-year-old aircraft engineer from Torrance, Calif., was aboard Flight 820, which was scheduled to stop in Tokyo and then fly on to San Francisco.
He said the plane began to vibrate after “the outer skin began peeling off” the right wing, just above the flaps near the fuselage.
“First, I felt a bump, then the plane began vibrating,” said Miller, who was seated near the wing. “I saw a foot of the starboard wing (panel) peel off and then other pieces followed. You can clearly see through the hole.”
“As we went down, four more pieces went off and when we landed, there was a gaping hole 10 feet by 4 feet wide,” he said.
But Rob Doughty, another United spokesman in Chicago, said the portion of a fiber glass panel that fell off was only 5 feet long and 3 feet wide.
‘Not a Hole at All’
He said there were other panels beneath it and that the accident did not leave a hole in the wing. “It’s not a hole at all,” he said in an interview.
Fred Farrar, an FAA spokesman in Washington, told the Associated Press that the panel that flew off “was strictly there for streamlining.”
He said it was “not structurally significant” and that there was “no compromise to the structural integrity of the airplane.”
Doughty did not know how high the plane was flying when the accident occurred, but Miller said it was probably about 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the time. Miller said there was “very mild panic” inside the craft when the passengers learned about the torn wing section.
Assumed It Was Turbulence
Maria Rowena Pizarro, a Filipina passenger traveling to Chicago, said she felt the plane vibrating but assumed it was wind turbulence.
“I knew something was wrong when we saw some of the passengers seated near the wings frantically waving at the stewardesses and pointing at the plane’s wings,” she said.
Pizarro said a crew member emerged from the cockpit, looked at the wing and announced the plane was returning to Manila.
“We were assured by the crew that everything was OK,” she said. “And since we were not instructed to take any emergency procedures, I knew we were safe.”
Crew Alerted Tower
Rudy Flores, supervising air traffic controller at Manila’s airport, said the crew discovered a fiber glass section of the wing tore off about 30 minutes after the plane took off from Manila. They radioed the airport’s tower that the damage was considered minor and that the plane would be returning.
“We were advised by the pilots that pieces of metal were being peeled off from one of the wings but they said they did not need any emergency assistance,” Flores told reporters. “Nobody was hurt, but because of the damage, the flight has been canceled.”
Dr. Edgardo Francisco, the airport doctor, said one passenger showed symptoms of a heart attack but recovered after taking sedatives.
Passengers were taken to different hotels in Manila and were told to wait until the flight was resumed, an airline official said.
‘Too Early to Tell’
Doughty, the United spokesman, said the Boeing 747-100 was delivered to the airline on Nov. 28, 1970.
“It’s too early to tell what the problem is, and to jump to the conclusion that it was age of the airplane at this point is irrelevant,” he said.
Last month, the cargo door of a United Boeing 747 blew off after the plane left Honolulu for Auckland, New Zealand, ripping a huge hole in the side of the fuselage. Nine people died when they were sucked out of the hole.
In April, 1988, a crew member was killed and 61 passengers were injured when a section of fuselage ripped off a 19-year-old Aloha Airlines Boeing 737.
These accidents and other recent structural failures have focused the attention of the U.S. aviation industry and the public on the age of America’s airplane fleet, estimated to average 12.7 years.