Panic Over The Pacific – The Crew Of United Airlines Flight 811

February 24, 1989 a day that would change the lives of 337 passengers and 18 crew members onboard United Airlines Flight 811.

Operating Flight 811 from Honolulu International Airport to Auckland was a 19-year-old Boeing 747-122 (N4713U), the 89th Jumbo Jet off the production line. The aircraft had set out from New York (JFK) earlier that day, stopping in Los Angeles and Honolulu before proceeding to Auckland and finally Sydney.

Used For - United 811
Boeing 747-122 N4713U. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Crew

The Cabin Crew that night were led by Chief Purser Laura Brentlinger (38), who had been flying for 17-years. She assigned Edward Lythgoe (37), Ricky Umehira (35), Mae Sapolu (38), Ilona Benoit (48), Richard Lam (41) and Sharol Preston (39), all veteran Flight Attendants (FA), positions in the forward part of the cabin.

Used For - United 811
Chief Purser Laura Brentlinger.

Also working with them was AFT Purser Sarah Shanahan (42), plus John Horita (44), Linda Shirley (30), Robyn Nakamoto (26), Tina Blundy (36), Jean Nakayama (37), Darrell Blankenship (28) and Curt Christensen (34).

Christensen, who was assigned a position at the very rear of the cabin, had been called off standby earlier in the day for the red-eye flight. He had initially been employed by Pan American Airways in May 1978 but moved across to United when the airline took over Pan Am’s Pacific Division in 1985. 

The jet took off at 01:52 local time from Honolulu International Airport, three minutes behind schedule. Thunderstorms in the area meant that the flight crew, led by 35-year United veteran Captain David Cronin (59), had left the seatbelt signs on as the aircraft climbed away from the Hawaiian islands. Also in the flight deck was First Officer Gregory Slader (48) and Flight Engineer Randal Thomas (46). 

Used For - United 811
Captain David Cronin.

Straight To Work

Christensen unbuckled his harness and headed up the right aisle to the aft service centre. Blundy, Nakayama and Blankenship were already there preparing the drinks carts.

Meanwhile up front – Brentlinger, Umehira and Lythgoe congregated at the bottom of the Boeing 747s iconic spiral staircase near door 1-right. 

Used For - United 811
The Boeing 747’s iconic spiral staircase.

Flight Attendant’s (FA’s) Benoit and Sapolu were already serving drinks to passengers in Business Class while Lam was prepping meals in the forward lower galley also known as ‘The Pit’.

In the right aisle behind the last row in Business Class, Sapolu was hunting down a Diet Coke. Lythgoe was on the phone in the First-Class service bay, asking Lam to send up more champagne.

Meanwhile, there was the usual chatter in the aft galley, and Christensen collected some ice and orange juice from the counter and placed it on his cart.

“A Tremendous Explosion”

As the jumbo climbed through 22,000 feet the crew and passengers suddenly heard a loud “thump” which shook the aircraft. “What the hell was that?” Captain Cronin asked. 

1.8 seconds later all hell broke loose. “We heard a tremendous explosion,” Cronin later described “and the craft violently reacted.”

Unbeknown to the crew and passengers, the forward cargo door had blown off with such force that it had bent over and slammed into the side of the fuselage, ripping half of the cabin wall out with it. The ensuing explosive decompression caused the cabin floor to cave in, and ten seats were ejected, killing all eight passengers seated here and one behind.

Used For - United 811
The devastation caused to the fuselage following the explosive decompression.

A gaping hole was left in the side of the aircraft through which FA Mae Sapolu, in the Business Class cabin, was almost blown out. Passengers and other crew members saw her clinging to a seat and were able to pull her back inside, despite her serious injuries.

Laure Brentlinger was making her way up the spiral staircase when the decompression occurred and was left clinging on for her life. “I call it flag time when I was hanging onto the rungs, and my feet were literally off the ground, hanging in mid-air,” she said. ″I was praying for my life, for the lives of the passengers, that we would get down safely.″ 

At the moment of the explosion, Christensen was facing forward, hands empty, standing partly in the aft service centre. He collapsed into the right aisle. In that instant, his senses record an indelible nightmare: “Immediately the air filled with a hazy smoke and flying debris. I felt a cold wind and sucking if you will, but it wasn’t a sucking. It was like being in the middle of a huge cannon blast, a blast of cold air. There was grey, swirling smoke and debris flying everywhere.

Used For - United 811
A devastating scene inside the cabin.

“Out of the corner of my eye, as I was being thrown down, I watched ceiling panels fall; door panels and side panels blew off. Big panels fell on people’s heads. It was like an implosion. Everything came down from the ceiling and the walls inward to us.”

″I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when her house gets picked up and everything gets blown away,″ Purser Sarah Shanahan said in an interview to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin after the accident.

A Terrorist Attack?

One word flashed through Christensen’s and the other crew members minds: Lockerbie.

Two months previously a Pan Am Boeing 747 had exploded over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. 

“I thought it was a terrorist bomb. I thought,` Oh my God, how did they get us way out here in Hawaii?’ I thought we were goners” Christensen said.

“I knew we had an explosive decompression because there was lots of mist in the cockpit. We went for our oxygen masks but there was no oxygen” Captain Cronin said.

The explosion had severely damaged the onboard emergency oxygen supply system, located in the forward cargo sidewall area just behind the missing cargo door.

An emergency decent was initiated as the jet turned back towards Honolulu. 

Debris ejected from the cabin during the decompression damaged the number 3 and 4 engine, so much so that engine 3 was shut down. The right wings leading edge and horizontal and vertical stabilisers were also damaged. 

Used For - United 811
The damaged number 3 and 4 engines.

“Prepare For An Emergency Landing”

As the aircraft descended, Captain Cronin asked Flight Engineer Thomas to tell the Flight Attendant’s to prepare for an emergency landing. Unable to contact them through the aircraft’s interphone or PA system, Thomas went to the cabin to see what was happening. 

The sight that greeted him was beyond terrifying. The jet’s fuselage was peeled off all the way up to the upper deck, and as he made his way down the spiral staircase, he saw the large hole in the side of the cabin.

Used For - United 811

“When I went downstairs, I knew we had a serious problem,” Thomas said. “I looked outside … it was just like looking through a picture window. I could see the wing and both engines, at that time No. 4 was in flames.”

Christensen got to his feet and began to move forward. As instinct and training kicked in, he started removing large sections of ceiling and wall panels that had landed on passengers.

He spotted a dangling oxygen mask, grabbed it and inhaled a nauseating nicotine taste. He discarded the mask and found he was able to breathe.

Used For - United 811
The passenger oxygen system failed to work as the system had been damaged when the cargo door exploded.

The explosive decompression lifted Ricky Lam off his feet and he landed on his back as he felt the plane ″go into a steep nosedive.″ He climbed up an emergency chute to the main cabin and said he had to crawl through ″all kinds of rubbish and debris″ and couldn’t see anything but yellow dust.

″I was thinking I was the only one left on the plane,″ he said. ″And then I stood up and saw the passengers.″

Communication between the flight attendants and passengers was very difficult because of the high ambient noise level in the cabin after the decompression, although the public address (PA) system was still operational. The crew used the aircrafts megaphones to shout commands to the passengers and communicate between each other.  

Christiansen made his way to mid-cabin, then to business class. A horrified man was yelling and pointing to seats 14 G and H, the last row in the business- class section. He kept shouting over and over, “My wife! Go look for my wife!.”

Used For - United 811
This photo was taken by passenger Beverly Nisbet.

The Forward Cabin

Edward Lythgoe found himself dazed and confused and covered in hot coffee, hanging onto the stairwell with his colleagues Umehira and Brentlinger. After donning a life vest, he made his way through the cabin. Waving a safety card, he signalled First Class passengers to don their life vests and later described how everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Chief Purser Brentlinger roused a dazed and bloodied Benoit from beneath the rubble and helped her to a seat. Badly injured, like many other passengers and crew, she struggled to tighten the life vests two straps around her waist. Deadheading Flight Attendant Leonard Jenkins assisted her before managing to strap themselves into jump seat 1-left.

Lythgoe returned for instructions. The noise was deafening. Brentlinger signalled and mouthed, “Sit down.” Crossing to the right side, he then strapped himself in 1-right, facing aft and staring out the hole.

Fearing that the aircraft would be ditching in the Pacific Ocean, the cabin crew continued assisting injured passengers and colleagues, telling everyone to remain calm, read the safety card, tighten their seatbelts and put on their lifejackets. Indeed one FA helped about 36 passengers don their life preservers. They also cleared the debris away from the exit doors and aisles, closed the doors of the storage compartments above doors 2-left and 2-right and prepared the cabin for an emergency landing.

Used For - United 811
Passengers on board Flight 811 adopt the brace position. Many had difficulty tightening their lifejackets.

“The Flight Attendant’s had just done a tremendous job,” First Officer Thomas said. “Everyone was in their seats, wearing their life vests. I saw no panic at all.”

Christensen sat numb in jump seat 3-right, confronting death. Lythgoe visualised ocean water gushing in through the hole, all while going through the mental exercise of opening door 1-right.

Hope Restored

Then, above the howling winds a chorus of voices yelled: “City lights! City lights!”

For the crew, their training kicked back in. For the first time, Shanahan and her colleagues realised the pilots still had control of the plane. ″People kept unfastening their seat belts and standing up to look out the windows,″ she said. ″I’m sure that they wanted the reassurance. They wanted to see those Honolulu city lights.”

She said she found three young men and assigned them to help with the evacuation upon landing, instructing them how to open the emergency exit and deploy the inflatable slide, making them repeat the instructions back to her.

She said she told them, ″This is a critical job. They will pile up at the bottom of the slide. They will get badly injured. It is vital that you stay there.″ 

″And they did. God bless them. They did,″ Shanahan said.

Used For - United 811
This image was taken by Purser Laura Bretlinger and shows the extensive damage inside the cabin.

Back In Hawaii

Fourteen minutes after the explosion, the stricken jet touched down at Honolulu International Airport. Immediately the crew initiated an emergency evacuation, and within 45 seconds, everyone was off the aircraft. During the evacuation, every crew member suffered some injury ranging from scratches to a dislocated shoulder, yet they performed their role with heroic grace.

A news report covering the United Flight 811 disaster.

Despite air and sea searches, no remains of the nine victims were ever found. The fatalities were: Anthony and Barbara Fallon; Harry and Susan Craig; Lee Campbell, Dr. John Crawford, John Swan, Rose Harley and Mary Handley-Desso.

Horrifyingly small body fragments and pieces of clothing were later found in the number 3 engine, meaning at least one of the victims were ingested by the power plant.

Used For - United 811
On September 26 and October 1, 1990, two halves of Flight 811’s cargo door were recovered from the Pacific Ocean from 14,100 feet (4,300 m) below the ocean surface.


A year later, only three of the 16 FA’s had returned to the skies. Most of the crew who worked to protect the remaining 327 passengers in the howling wind of the plane’s darkened cabin had not been able to return to work, either because of physical or psychological problems. Some never took to the skies again.

The crew were later awarded the Heroism Award by then US Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner describing how they overcame “The deafening, hurricane-like winds that swept through the cabin” as they helped passengers deal with the crisis over the Pacific. 

However, some of the FA’s interviewed after the tragedy were critical of the state of aviation safety and accused United Airlines of cutting back in training and safety equipment, something the airline vehemently denied.

Edward Lythgoe, who suffered two broken ribs in the incident, returned to work over a year later and told of how he still reacted with newfound anxiety whenever a plane got into turbulence and during landing and takeoff.

Flight Attendant Darrell Blankenship of Seattle, who accepted the award with his arm still in a cast, described how a flying drinks cart jammed into him during the flight.

Blankenship and Lythgoe both said passengers and some FA’s had difficulty putting on life vests, which Lythgoe said he thought were badly designed.

Sharol Preston said not enough oxygen bottles or megaphones, needed to communicate with passengers above the roar caused by the hole, were readily available to the crew.

Sarah Shanahan refused to return to work until United improved its training for emergencies saying the airline ″watered down″ safety procedures and training over the years.

Ms Shanahan, who at the time had been flying for 22 years, said attendants used to have to undergo three days of retraining each year, including an open-book test, but this had been reduced to just an eight-hour session.

″It makes it more difficult because you have to fly by the seat of your pants,″ she said. ″The corporation doesn’t seem to think safety is cost- effective.″

Used For - United 811
Some of the Flight Attendants of United 811 holding up a sign saying ‘We love you Captain Cronin’

Flying remains one of the safest forms of transport. But even all these years after the Flight Attendant’s spoke out about the safety issues on Flight 811; many crew still question the corners airlines, aircraft manufacturers and aviation authorities cut to try and cut costs.

The 747 involved would return to the skies for United Airlines just seven months after the disaster, before eventually being retired in January 1997. Gambian millionaire Babani Sissoko then purchased her to be the flagship for his Air Dabia operation before being permanently grounded in 2003.

Used For - United 811
N4713U repaired and ready to fly again.

Most of the passengers and even many of the crew she would go on to carry would have no clue of the jets earlier brush with disaster and the heroic efforts of the 15 crew members, one off duty FA and three pilots that fateful night. 

© by Dan Air.

8 thoughts

  1. This was and still is a remarkable story of fact!
    Again #flight attendants are simply not given enough recognition.
    Frowned upon in some companies as #manual labourers #uneducated #jobsworth #ignorant and a thousand other insults. Unfortunately there will always be a belittling society. I certainly hope they don’t have to experience an emergency!!!
    To me there are 3 vocations that call to people, nursing, firefighters and flight attendants. No amount of money will ever compensate but the rewards are priceless.
    Dan, keep the stories coming please, Kas x

  2. You left out another hero, Lee Campbell’s Dad. Who doggedly got to the bottom of the disaster, that the door latch mechanize was opened in flight due to faulty relays in 747’s. And that this wasn’t the only incident, just the worst. Lee was ejected from the plane that night, and his father, through great expense and constant lobbying of the US government, found out the cause and changed aviation. And he was an Australian, so this was no easy task. This was a groundbreaking case for aviation safety.

  3. I just recently watched a video on the amazing efforts of Lee Campbells parents (not just dad) who spent years following up on the accident and driving across the US several times, and forcing them to go get the cargo door.. Even when faced with new evidence, the NTSB refused to change the report until that cargo door was eventually retrieved. When it was found, they drove to Boeing who refused to allow them access, then told them the door lock mech has been sent to DC.. So they drove across the country again and demanded to see it.. and yes, it was found to be what they had claimed all along.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.