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March 03

Faulty door dooms plane

A DC-10 jet crashes into a forest outside of Paris, France, killing all 346 people on board, on March 3, 1974. The poor design of the plane, as well as negligent maintenance, contributed to the disaster.

Nearly two years earlier, on June 6, 1972, an American Airlines DC-10 was flying over Ontario, Canada, when its rear-hatch door blew off and tore a hole in the fuselage. The plane’s cabin lost pressure and the cabin floor collapsed. Clouds of dust and bits of metal filled the plane’s interior and some key cables were severed. Still, the pilot was able to get the jet under control and managed to safely land the plane in Detroit. Later, it was determined that the latching mechanism on the door was designed poorly, leading to the catastrophe.

Modifications to the mechanism were recommended, but no systematic recall system was undertaken to implement the modifications. In fact, new DC-10s came off the assembly line with the old latching mechanism. One of these planes was sold to Turkish Airlines, which put the plane into service immediately.

On March 3, 1974, British European Airways was unable to make its scheduled flights due to a strike by its workers. When Turkish Airlines Flight 981 arrived in Paris from Istanbul, many passengers scheduled to fly on British European Airways transferred to 981 for its final leg to London. Many potential passengers were turned away from the full flight, including the Bury St. Edmunds rugby team from England. Meanwhile, maintenance on the DC-10 was suffering a fatal breakdown. The station mechanic was supposed to do a visual inspection of the rear hatch door. However, the station mechanic was on vacation on this day and the flight engineer apparently forgot to assume this duty.

When the plane took off with the faulty hatch door improperly locked, the flight was doomed. At 12:30 p.m., as the plane reached an altitude of 11,000 feet just after takeoff, the rear hatch door blew off over Coulommiers, France. As with the previous flight over Canada, a rapid decompression followed. The last two rows of seats on the DC-10 were sucked right out of a hole in the fuselage. The six passengers in those seats were killed immediately when they fell into a turnip field in St. Pathus.

The other 340 people on board had to endure 90 more seconds in the air. The pilots were unable to control the plane because primary flight control cables had been severed. The plane slammed into the ground at 500 miles per hour, killing everyone on board. The impact was so severe that only 40 bodies were found intact.

In the aftermath, McDonnell Douglas, the plane’s manufacturer, sought to blame a baggage handler for failing to properly secure the hatch. This prompted the baggage handlers’ union to boycott all DC-10s until a company emissary finally apologized. Following this disaster, all DC-10s were recalled to modify the rear-hatch latching mechanism.

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