Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Story of Clarabelle Lansing

So I made it back from Hawaii with a lot of pictures. One week on Oahu and one week on Maui. I didn’t have a lot of time to “blog” and besides, I had a hard time finding an Internet connection. None was offered in our hotel on Oahu and the cable modem at our condo on Maui just wouldn’t work with my laptop.

Had a great time and great trip, but I’d like to start with a story about Hawaiian air travel.

I do have a lot of irrational fears, but I don’t have a big fear of flying, though I have a little fear. It all just seems so unnatural – a giant machine like that being controllable in flight. I get the science of it, it just seems unnatural. Of course if something goes wrong with part of the plane – such as an engine – you always know that planes have backup systems, and you can always make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. Of course, when you are flying to Hawaii, there aren’t a lot of alternate airports along the way.

There haven’t been a lot of planes that have gone down in the great Pacific on the way to Hawaii – and planes are landing in Honolulu every three minutes. So, planes are damn safe – although Stevin Levitt, the interesting young economist, points out in his new book Freakonomics that if you account for all factors, flying is probably not the safest way to travel as is widely touted, but is probably about as safe as driving in a car – which actually is still pretty darn safe. Surely there’s nothing to fear soaring 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet on top of a giant fuel tank. It’s really a matter of the odds of having a mishap are low, but the stakes are pretty high when the time comes.

So, when I flew to and from Hawaii on Aloha airlines, I wasn’t particularly anxious about the flight at all - in fact I enjoyed my Salisbury Steak, roll, side salad, Coke and brownie, but I couldn’t help but think about this interesting story you may have heard about which I account in my own words below after reading a few articles about it out on the web. So I start my notes about Hawaii (I'll have more later and I'm working on the pictures), with this little story about Aloha Airlines. See if you can put yourself there…

The Story of Clarabelle Lansing

Clarabelle Lansing was a senior flight attendant for Aloha Airlines back in 1988. She was one of those courteous and helpful people that happily assist a plane full of obnoxious Hawaiian tourists on their way to the next island – you know they type: the sunburned families with maps, the fat men that scratch a lot, the screaming children. A forced smile never seems quite as forced with these ladies (sometimes guys) - they are real professionals, and they don’t get enough credit. The “buh-bye” thing at the end is protocol so it isn’t fair to roll your eyes at that. In all probability they are nice people and they actually mean you no sarcastic pittance.

Aloha Airlines had dozens of daily inter-island flights then and still does today – generally they last 20 minutes to an hour depending on which islands are involved, whether conditions, etc. Its easy flying, but you know, kinda repetitive. Good take off and landing practice for the pilots, kind of dull routine for veteran flight attendants like Clarabelle. Anyway, its fluff a pillow here, tell someone to put their tray in the upright position there, pretty routine stuff.

On April 28th at about 1pm Clarabelle prepared things for passengers as usual. This flight was from Hilo (on the Big Island) to Honolulu. That’s about a forty minute deal. Take off, pass out the nuts, pass out the drinks, collect the cups, down, you’re done, next flight.

This time Clarabelle was assisted by two others: Michelle Honda and Jane Santo-Tomita. Picture them all. That simple, business-like uniform usually neatly ironed, the little airline name badges (probably also say “Aloha”), big smiles, professionalism, patience. They plucked out the cookie wrappers and used Kleenex from the magazine holders, refolded the blankets, wiped the crumbs off the seats that double as floatation devices, and made sure the daily peanut treats and soft drink carts were ready to go, things like that.

First Officer Madeline "Mimi" Tompkins and Captain Robert Schornsteimer settled into their cockpit seats and did their little checklist routine. There was an FAA traffic controller seated in the “observer” seat. This was the not the first flight of the day for this plane – it had been active that day.

Passengers began to board. You might imagine the Hawaiian music playing in the cabin as everyone was boarding, and you know the drill – passengers with special situations come on first, then first class, then rows 18 to 25, etc. Everything was perfectly fine … oh, except that one passenger noticed something on the way in the plane door, or was she just imagining something resembling a 40 inch crack in the fuselage? Hmm. It was going to be a normal day – almost.

Aloha Airlines flight 243 left the ground of Hilo at 1:25pm. It was on schedule. Weather was good.

So imagine take off. You get that powerful engine sound and you feel the pressure in the back of your seat, yowweee it’s getting pretty fast here, you think, and you reach that sweet-spot speed where your seat dips down and then you feel the plane pull up into the air. It all feels just a bit unnatural and dicey, but its okay – as long as the engines keep going, the plane keeps going up. And ascent goes pretty quick from there. I can tell you the scenery flying out of Hawaii is lovely - beautiful green hills and valleys meet shoreline on one side and the blue ocean on the other. Man it really does look like paradise.

Well, that take off stuff went just like that for the folks on this flight, nothing special. People were flipping through their airline magazines and peering out the windows just like you always do when you fly. The little bing-bong bell went off to indicate the flight was at altitude. Clarabelle, Michelle and Jane started down the aisle dishing out the nuts and the drinks. Oh, take your Coke and shut up, Clarabelle must have thought when she dealt with at least one slimy nit-wit, but we’ll never know.

First Officer Mimi had been at the “wheel” for the lift off and leveled the plane at 24,000 feet while the captain did other routine, non-flying stuff – from this I assume he filled out some mindless red tape forms or something.

So when did it happen? Something like 1:45pm just after leveling off, and I can tell you, it wasn’t Clarabelle’s best day. At the moment of reckoning she was at row five picking up a passenger’s plastic cup. Michele was in row 15 or 16. Jane was in row 2. They were three good people each doing their job, getting through another day. Bless them all.

Mimi Tompkins heard a loud “clapping” sound and felt her head jerk back. In that instant there was grey insulation material whirling about the cockpit. The controls were described as “spongy” and “loose.” Captain Schornsteimer looked back to see the cockpit door gone and blue sky above the passenger cabin. Yikes, this is bad, he must have mused.

In the very front of the plane, attendant Jane Santo-Tomita was hit violently in the head by debris and was slammed down to the floor. She was seriously injured but lucky to be down. A passenger held her there.

Michelle Honda was also thrown to the floor as the plane started to decompress. She held on to the legs of the seats for her life.

Eyewitnesses say that Clarabelle did not immediately get sucked out of the plane, but things must have happened pretty fast. As the plane began to rip open, she was hurled against a hole on the left side of the plane creating something very bizarre to imagine. As she temporarily blocked the air from sucking out the hole, Clarabelle’s body covered the crevice in such a way that she created a surge of extreme air pressure back into the plane – this surge probably caused further damage to the roof and may have created a very loud noise. This strange and possibly painful phenomenon is commonly known as fluid hammering – and is sometimes referred to as “cannonball pulse.” This probably lasted but an instant.

You’ll have to use your imagination to get an idea of how much mental and/or physical anguish Clarabelle must have felt or what her state of consciousness may have been at the moment she was sucked from the left side of the airplane over the open ocean somewhere south/southeast of Maui. There’s no evidence that she struck the plane knocking her unconscious after ejection, so I tend to imagine her bruised and in such terrified shock she could barely breathe, perhaps a bit of blood coming down on her forehead with her arms outstretched – in a desperate tumble along with smacking debris and oversized carryon luggage while she watched wide-eyed at the spinning image of her plane, her passengers and her crew soaring away above her. At some point I imagine her looking down at the blue ocean. It must have gotten quiet – only the sound of wind just before the end. I’m sure you can guess why they never found her body. Sorry for the drama. That’s what I imagine.

Back on the plane things remained panicky. Think about what the passengers just witnessed and think about what you’d be thinking. Am I next? How do I tighten this damn belt? Are we going down? Yes, we must be going down – this doesn’t happen to planes that land!

There were 89 passengers strapped in a plane, but first class had definitely bought the best ride for the money. The first 18 feet of the plane behind the cockpit were completely wide open – the floor was pretty much all that was left. Noise in the plane made communication between crew members impossible. They used hand signals. The captain’s quick musing that this situation was pretty bad led him to make a snap decision to put the plane in a steep decent – he apparently grabbed the controls from Mimi. One hopes this wasn’t an act of sexism. Considering the enormity of this event, let’s give him some leeway. In any event, the rapid decent may not have made the passengers feel much better about the fate of the plane, but breathing was probably getting difficult as the masks they always tell you will fall down in the case of cabin depressurization, didn’t come down. Of course, logic would tell you this particular malfunction goes without saying for the first class section.

Nonetheless, these tourists had no time to admire the view. In the front they were holding on to poor Jane Santo-Tomita. They held on to her all the way down saving her from certain death. The other attendant, Michelle Honda, although injured, was able to crawl up and down the aisle assisting and calming the passengers by holding onto the seat legs of the coach area, a hero.

But before we get to the end, it gets just a little bit worse. Imagine this scenario: The walls of the plane hadn’t torn away in a clean break. There were jagged bits of metal pieces being battered by the slipstream, then breaking loose and spearing back among the passengers. One can rightly assume that this made an uncomfortable situation for the travelers even more uncomfortable. Most of the passengers were injured, seven seriously.

At 1:58pm the plane was able to make an emergency landing at Runway 2 at Kahului Airport, Maui. The whole ordeal was but 15 minutes long – but how long do you suppose it felt like to the passengers and crew? No word on whether or not passengers received a refund on their tickets.

It’s all about metal fatigue friends, though there are some conflicting theories on this incident – including one that claims that this whole story can and probably will happen again. The Aloha planes that take off and land so much may have been more susceptible to this type of fatigue.

Clarabelle was the only one to die. There’s a memorial for her now at the airport in Honolulu. As for the plane. According to the accident report:

“A major portion of the upper crown skin and structure of section 43 separated in flight causing an explosive decompression of the cabin. The damaged area extended from slightly aft of the main cabin entrance door, rear ward about 18 feet to the area just forward of the wings and from the left side of the cabin at the floor level to the right side window level.

The value of the airplane was estimated at about $5 million. As a result of the accident, the airplane was determined to be damaged beyond repair. It was dismantled on the site and sold for parts and scrap.”

28 Comments:

Blogger alibiike said...

Very nice, but you need some editing.

Ike

11:45 PM  
Blogger David Rytell said...

Ok, gotcha.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Marc19 said...

It is a nice report about this flight. It must me a very cruel affair. Can you tell me more, write me a mail under mail: MarcOppermann@yahoo.de
Yours, marc

4:37 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I bet you wrote this with a hard on.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

You know nothing about airplanes at all!! They started serving drinks while still climbing and commercial airliners don't cruise at 24000 Aloha 243 climbed to 37000 then suffered explosive decompression!

1:47 PM  
Blogger JLD said...

Wow Thomas, calm down. The aircraft Aloha 243 was operating at its normal altitude of 24,000 feet. Depending on where a commercial aircraft is flying and for what duration they can operate at all manner of altitudes.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Good blog, but I think you took a little too much liberty in downplaying the importance of the cockpit and cabin crew's jobs and functions.

Examples:

"Good take off and landing practice for the pilots, kind of dull routine for veteran flight attendants like Clarabelle. Anyway, its fluff a pillow here, tell someone to put their tray in the upright position there, pretty routine stuff."

Pilots are at their most vigilant in these two most crictical phases of an airline flight. Short hops are actually a bit more labor intensive. You're more likely to be FLYING the airplane instead of letting the autopilot do all the work.

Many flight attendants would probaby take offense at your cavalier description of their job. It is most demeaning to C.B. Lansing, the main focus of your blog. F/A's are there for your SAFETY, not your comfort.

Continuing on:

"First Officer Madeline "Mimi" Tompkins and Captain Robert Schornsteimer settled into their cockpit seats and did their little checklist routine."

"First Officer Mimi had been at the “wheel” for the lift off and leveled the plane at 24,000 feet while the captain did other routine, non-flying stuff – from this I assume he filled out some mindless red tape forms or something."

Do you really think that little of an airline pilot's job? Words like "little" and "mindless" are not going to win you any pilot friends.

Lastly, just a minor point:

"The captain...apparently grabbed the controls from Mimi. One hopes this wasn’t an act of sexism."

Gender has nothing to do with it. It's standard protocol. If there is an emergency, even if it is the F/O's leg, the Captain assumes control. The same thing happened with US Airways 1549's bird strike incident.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Ramblings. said...

Well, I enjoyed this. Ok, maybe enjoy isn't the best word, but it does give a sense of what it was like.
Cudos to you for your artistic rendering of this tragic event.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

@thomas,
I am pretty sure they were at 24,000 ft up in the air.....check it out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloha_Airlines_Flight_243

10:55 AM  
Blogger Raven said...

I watched the re-enactment of this on Air Crash Investigation.

I enjoyed your version of events, but fyi it was 'Jane Sato-Tomita' not Santo.

Also, if you buy into the fluid hammer theory, there are signs that point to the explosive ejection being either fatal or enough to knock her out. I personally hope it was.

12:45 PM  
Blogger John said...

The temperature outside likely would have killed Clarabelle Lansing in less than ten seconds, probably five.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Jaime Navarro said...

Actually there is evidence that clarabelle struck her head on the fusilage; a skull shaped blood halo was found on the exterior of the plane.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Jaime Navarro said...

Actually there is evidence that clarabelle struck her head on the fusilage; a skull shaped blood halo was found on the exterior of the plane.

7:13 PM  
Blogger James said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:09 PM  
Blogger James said...

Agreed with Jaime Navarro, nice blog though maybe a bit romantic... hopefully she was knocked unconscious by the airflow and subsequent hits by the section that had separated from the main structure. One possible explanation can be found here: http://www.disastercity.info/ghost/sequence/

3:10 PM  
Blogger Liam Dillingham said...

Actually, I bet she was unconscious during the fall because she smashed into the side of the outer fuselage after it tore open and then was sucked away. The proof of this is a skull print on the side along with a blood smear leading behind it. Really nice post though!

9:06 PM  
Blogger Martha Santiago-Ostrow said...

So tragic for cb Lansing, may she rest in peace.

8:27 PM  
Blogger jay thomson said...

CB is the perfect example of when its your time to go. She was most likely spiritually ready.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Geez, I kinda think that the entire story of CB is really disrespectful lol
Geez

10:08 AM  
Blogger Wayne Mulley said...

Hi.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree! On a 350 mile trip in a jet, there is no sense going that high because there is barely enough time or distance.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Glenn Triller said...

I agree! On a 350 mile trip in a jet, there is no sense going that high because there is barely enough time or distance.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Felix Kimanthi said...

Great Story,this is sccary.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, we can all guess about CB Lansing, but if she was conscious, I hope her fall was quick.
Poor woman.

6:59 PM  
Blogger travlinsam m said...

Your blog...your call, but a bit sensational in its depiction. I'd hate to think any of her family read this...to sensationalize what she went through would only add to their anguish.

Being in the aviation field and actually having a background reviewing this case, you could have done your homework a little better. I don't like bashing anyone, but for something as important as this, getting the facts correct is something you should really do. When you said, hand signals, it may have initially been done, but the standard protocol is to continue to wear headsets (unless the comm systems have been damaged and are inoperable).

9:37 AM  
Blogger Morrigan Faye Haney said...

"The captain...apparently grabbed the controls from Mimi. One hopes this wasn’t an act of sexism."

"Gender has nothing to do with it. It's standard protocol. If there is an emergency, even if it is the F/O's leg, the Captain assumes control. The same thing happened with US Airways 1549's bird strike incident."

He is correct if the faa or ntsb would get wind of the pilot in command did not take the controls he would be in bigger trouble. It's not a sexist thing it's a regulatory law set forth. The sex of the secondary pilot has nothing to do with it. My experience as a pilot, it's uncommon that I have seen a sexist pilot. A majority of people who love aviation only see others who love aviation. Pilots respect other pilots a great deal. This statement bothered me a lot as a female pilot. Other than that your story was enjoyable.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Jim Carroll said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:42 AM  

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