On 24 February 1989, United Airlines flight 811 was flying the Honolulu to Auckland sector of a service from Los Angeles to Sydney. A cargo door on the Boeing 747-122 failed, resulting in an explosive decompression and the deaths of nine passengers. One of the people on board is someone I know and this is his story.

Guest post by Mark Geddes.

32 years ago this happened to me. I survived a major airline disaster. United 811 changed my life forever, along with the other 355 passengers and crew.

United 811

I was heading to Australia for the very first time and had just had an amazing week in Hawaii. I brought my flight forward as I was nearly out of money… something which still happens to me today!

Seated in 36C in economy class, I was sat beside a young mother and her son. To pass the time, I was listening to the Arrival album by ABBA on my Sony Walkman cassette player.

Disaster Strikes

Suddenly it felt like we were in a wind tunnel, with everything being blown towards the front of the cabin. Most of the overhead compartments sprung open, with belongings going everywhere. It was extremely cold and noisy.

The first thing I noticed was a drinks trolley had become loose and somehow broken steward Darrell Blankenship’s arm. By this stage the Aft Purser, Sarah Shanahan, had retrieved a megaphone and was telling people to try and remain calm and to stop screaming.

Alarmingly for us, she was referring to a booklet on what to do in an emergency. Someone shouted out to her about it and she replied, “I’ve been flying 21 years and nothing like this has ever happened!”.

Next, she asked us to get our lifejackets on and to inflate them. A year later I found out the reason why she wanted us to inflate them – she thought we were going to crash and that the jackets would help protect our bodies.

Asked To Assist With The Evacuation

People were still very frightened, as although it was noisy in the cabin, you couldn’t hear any engine sounds. The plane had levelled off by now and we could see the distant lights of Honolulu approaching.

The stewardess approached me and asked if I would assist her when we landed. My emergency door was located just behind me and she explained how to open it. She needed to do the other side, as the injured steward was strapped to his jump seat.

Time passed very slowly, and what seemed like hours turned out to be just under twenty minutes. We sat with our inflated lifejackets on in the brace position. From the window, I could see we were about to land. While waiting to land, I had been having very strong flashbacks to when I was very young, some from when I was just three years old.

Touchdown In Honolulu

As we touched down it felt like we were on a cushion or landing on feathers, it was that smooth. At the end of the runway, we turned off to the left and just stopped. The emergency floor lighting came on, which was my cue to get out the seat and open the door of this jumbo jet.

The stewardess had instructed me to go down first, and to stay there to help other people that followed. By now it was like being in a movie, with all the blue flashing lights, fire engines, ambulances and storm troopers. I heard someone shouting over the other side of the plane, so I walked over to have a look, which is when I saw the massive hole in the side.

Missing People In The Headcount

There was confusion around what should happen next. Technically, we had left the United States, and although it seemed like a lot of people had brought their Duty Free off the plane, most didn’t have their Passports.

Eventually we were taken back to the departure lounge we had recently left, and the staff attempted to work out how many of us were there. Asking people to stand still and be counted didn’t work, so a passenger roll call was done. Of course, there were names being called with no response.

Ground Shenanigans

Next, we were advised we all had to be interviewed by the FBI, then that they were going to rebook us on other flights. That did not go down well at all. A lot of Americans were saying they refused to get on another plane, while the Kiwis and Aussies were saying they would only get on a flight if everyone was kept together.

Six or seven hours later we were taken to a hotel, and there were problems in some cases as a lot of people had nothing with them, including documents. There was no hotel in Honolulu that had enough rooms for everyone, so the one we arrived at had camp beds set up for everyone in the ballroom.

By now I was in a little group and we were aware of what had happened. Technology was nowhere near what is was today, and it had taken me hours to get through to my Mum in the UK by public telephone to let her know I was okay.

The “highlight” I guess you could call it, was when our group went for a late lunch in the restaurant. Everyone had the same feeling of elation that we were alive, even though we knew others had perished in the accident.

Time To Find Our Belongings

It was something like 36 hours before we went back to the airport. It felt like we were being basically treated like criminals, due to the issue of many people not having their Passports with them.

We went to a hanger, which had a basic layout of the inside of the aircraft laid out on the floor. Large signs were on display indicating row numbers and they placed what was recovered where it was found. Due to the decompression, they explained some people will have lost their baggage.

My hand luggage bag with my Passport and ABBA CDs I found at row 12. My leather jacket was at row 5 and I was lucky enough to have both of my suitcases as well.

Captain David Cronin

The only reason I am here today is down to the skill of Captain Cronin, who showed superb airmanship, getting the crippled jumbo back to Honolulu safely. This was made more challenging as bodies and cargo had gone through the engines causing a loss of power to three of the four of them.

It happened to be his next to last flight for United, as he was taking retirement after having flown the Pacific routes for over 20 years. He came to Australia a year later where I got to meet him and we heard his side of the story.

He said that if we had been 1,000 feet higher, the plane would have broken in two. Also, he said our oxygen masks had not deployed because we were not high enough… but years after the investigation it was reported they had failed due to the door failure. Captain Cronin went on to give aviation safety talks to airlines and he passed away in 2010.

Did The Accident Affect Me?

Flying is a large part of my life and I have really never had a problem with getting on a plane. I used to always request a seat on the left hand side, but that really only lasted about 10 years. These days I do FIFO (fly in, fly out) and I am happy to sit anywhere.

What is frustrating to me is that while both Virgin and Qantas say, “although you are a frequent flyer, please pay attention to the safety demonstration”, the amount of people that continue to watch a film or use their phone is unbelievable.

Despite the heat up north in Australia where I work, I always wear long trousers and a shirt with long sleeves when I fly. When I went down the evacuation slide on United 811, I did get a few skin burns.

Advice For Those Who Fly

The best advice I can give you is that you really need to pay attention to your surroundings and work out where your nearest exit is. As they say, sometimes it could be behind you.

I always count the rows keep that mental number in my head. People do the strangest things in these events and the last thing you need is someone panicking because they don’t know which way their emergency door is.

Overall Thoughts

During the first 20 years after the accident, I really lived each day like it was my last. I never settled anywhere and the biggest issue I had is that I just could not seem to save money. Some things never change!

We are on this planet just once, so I believe you should always be kind to others and treat people like you want to be treated. Enjoy yourself and LIVE LIFE!

And that is the end of Mark’s tale. I had always wondered what happened after an accident like this, so those pieces were really interesting to me. There’s an excellent article called Panic Over The Pacific – The Crew of United Airlines 811, which tells the story from the crew perspective.

What did you think of this first hand experience of United 811? Have you ever been involved in an airline emergency before? Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

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Featured image by Associated Press via The Washington Post.
Images on board UA811 via Confessions of a Trolley Dolly.

United 747 seating plan via Frequently Flying.
Dave Cronin picture by Marilyn Newton/RGJ.