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Eyewitness Report: United Flight 811

By: Mike Rutherford

It certainly was interesting!

The sheer size of the hole in United Airlines 811 can be seen in this photograph.
I was originally booked on the same flight 24 hours previously but due to a work colleague's wife becoming sick back home (Auckland, New Zealand) he swapped tickets with me (he was due to fly the next day after me). When I went to check in United ground check in staff were not going to let me on as the ticketed name was not in my name. I put on a bit of a fuss so they relented (in hindsight, not a good move!).

The flight left late at night (if my memory serves me correctly it was about midnight). I was seated in a window seat approximately 10 rows behind business class. The take off and climb out was fine. The weather was okay. About 20 minutes into the flight there was a slight vibration that I felt was not quite right (I am a commercially licensed pilot). Nothing too much though, just a shudder. About 30 seconds later there was an almighty BANG, a HUGE rush off exiting air, and the cabin fogged over for what appeared to be about 15 seconds.

At this stage all hell was breaking loose. Papers and loose items were flying everywhere, the noise was horrendous and the temperature in the cabin reached freezing in about 5 seconds! I looked up and could see what appeared to be a hole in the side of the aircraft in the business class section. The aircraft at this stage appeared to be side-slipping quite significantly. The hole was on the opposite side of the aircraft as to what I was on. The oxygen masks had deployed in the cabin also.

For the first few minutes the cabin crew just "hung on" trying to take in what had happened. It was obvious that some passengers had been sucked out as part of the floor was missing. Because of the noise it was impossible to communicate with anyone at that stage. Because of the fact that it was night there was no reference points and from my perspective it was impossible to gauge how high we were. The crew were pretty quick in pulling themselves together and started to render assistance to the passengers closest to the hole, some of whom appeared to be in danger of being sucked out.

It was obvious that the cabin crew needed assistance (at this stage they were mainly females) so about 4 of the passengers (myself included) gave them a hand to move these passengers towards the rear of the aircraft. I do recall at one stage (probably about 3 minutes after the initial blast) one of the flight crew appearing (I later learned he was the engineer) and in looking at the damage turning quite ashen and mouthing to himself "f**k!". For some bizarre reason that scared me more than the hole in the aircraft!. He soon disappeared back to the cockpit. Once we had moved that passengers from the danger area we buckled ourselves back in to our seats. At one stage a cabin attendant yelled into a loud hailer not to panic which sort of amused me considering what we were going through!.

After what appeared to be hours (in fact it was about 20 minutes all up) I looked out the window and saw lights! About two minutes later the intercom came on and the Pilot informed us that we would be landing in two minutes. Looking back on the incident one thing that I am still unable to explain is, with all the noise that was happening, and the confusion, I, and other passengers I subsequently spoke to, heard this announcement as clear as day! We did in fact land within the 2 minutes and the landing was one of the smoothest I have every had in a 747!

After exiting down the slide it would be fair to say that in looking at the aircraft damage it was absolutely amazing that anyone got out alive.

Things that I quite vividly remember were:

The noise. It was absolutely deafening.

The feeling of extreme anxiety in that because it was night there was no way of telling how high the aircraft was. As a result you thought that you would hit the water at any time.

The feeling of serious concern that I had for my family in that because I had changed flights my name did not appear on the passenger list. I (and I think that vast majority of the passengers) did not believe we would make it back. I had vision of the wrong family being told that there son/husband had died (of course in the cold light of day this would not have occurred as he was already home!). Equally of concern was the fact that my family did not, and would not, have known I was on the aircraft.

I did get to meet the captain a couple of weeks after the event. He had flown into Auckland on what was his last flight before retiring. In talking to him he informed me that the authorities had attempted to simulate the identical conditions in the simulator. They informed him that from this model they concluded that it was impossible for him to have brought the aircraft back in one piece!

I still fly regularly with very little problems but interestingly the person that I replaced on the flight has never flown since and informs me he never will.

[Editor's Note: For more information on the events surrounding the United Airlines Flight 811 accident, please view the accident record in the AirDisaster.Com Accident Database.]

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