Alaska Flight #536 – Rapid De-Pressurization and Panic at 30K Feet

Me at 30K - Wondering what was going on...de-pressurization is not a confidence building experience

Boy, what a day. In what started as a typical flight home from a typical holiday weekend, changed drastically twenty minutes after take off. My fiancée and I were returning from a few days in Seattle when the unthinkable happened to us – our Alaska MD-80 Airplane tore a hole in it’s fuselage at 30K feet.

First of all, I’m just glad I’m here to write this post, to tell the tale of this horrifying incident – but the stupid circumstances by which it happened, are upsetting.

Nothing can describe the helpless feeling you go through during a time like this, when you are absent any control, you cannot breathe, and everyone around is stunned into fear. It all started with a loud bang – the cabin air began to swirl and the engine sound became deafening. As a GA-VFR pilot, I knew something was terribly wrong. As the smell of acrid AV-gas/JP4 and burning plastic filled the cabin, it created more fear in the eyes of the holiday passengers around me. We were all gripped in silence, surrounded by the white noise from the engines that eerily engulfed the plane into a surreal atmosphere. And as the oxygen masks deployed from the ceiling in a familiar, video-esque manner, we all grasped them in fear – trying to figure out how to breathe through the flimsy pieces of plastic. Parents were the most confused – as the masks were too large for their babies’ faces and were not easy to put on in such a panicked situation. The next few minutes passed like seconds – the plane started diving down to a lower level … and fast.

The first moment of some release was the pilot’s voice over the speaker. It had been more than 20 minutes since he last spoke, when he told us we had reached altitude. Now, he told us that we had leveled off at 10K feet and we were heading back to Sea-Tac airport. Again, since I am a pilot – I had many ideas on how and why this happened. This morning I found out that one of my assumptions was correct – there was a hole in the plane that caused the decompression. A hole that could have cost many lives, including my own. The enraging fact is that a non-union baggage handler ran into the side of the plane moments prior to take-off … and that it was never reported.

Thank god for the help of an amazing cabin crew and pilot. Without them, who knows what could have happened.

The worst part for me was the fact that my Fiancee and I were 4 rows apart and she was closer to the rear of the plane where the loud ‘bang’ and Engine noise was coming from; I couldn’t stop thinking of how she felt, and how terrified she must be all alone back there. But as you know Alaska Airlines often ‘oversells’ flights as usual, in an overbooked flight they couldn’t accomodate us.

Ugh…we’ll here are the photos of the incident as I could take them on my Treo 650, sorry about the resolution :)

The Cabin Crew Helping Passengers

Flight Crew Assisting Children Traveling Alone

Alaska Air Cabin Crew during Decent

Update: Some people have been looking “into” my Civil Aviation Information (Captain X), unfortunately it’s not listed under ‘Jeremy Hermanns’ – my nickname is ‘Jeremy’; but my legal name ‘Robert Jeremiah Hermanns’. For the record: Date of Issue of my FAA Private Pilot Certificate is April 26, 1999. Took my flight test at Van Nuys Airport in a Katana DA-20, and my written at John Wayne in Orange County. Also, I’m a previous AOPA member and Piper Cherokee 140 Owner.

P.S.: I am not editing any comments…the server is being overloaded and not resolving while I’m trying approve them all with this much traffic.