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Thursday, March 19, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boeing Blamed By Ntsb For Flight 811 Door Disaster

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Transportation Safety Board reversed an earlier finding and ruled that a "faulty switch or wiring" led to the inadvertent opening of the cargo-door latches, leading to disaster on United Airlines Flight 811 three years ago.

In an unusual move yesterday, the safety board threw out its initial findings that the forward cargo door of the Boeing 747 must have been mislatched by a United ground worker.

Nine passengers were thrown to their deaths when Flight 811's forward cargo door flew open shortly after takeoff from Honolulu Feb. 24, 1989, tearing a large chunk out of the fuselage.

Based on evidence that came to light after the door was retrieved from the ocean floor 19 months ago, the board absolved United's maintenance and operation workers of contributing to the accident, and shifted blame to The Boeing Co.

The safety board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration order airlines to disconnect electrical power from cargo doors on virtually all large commercial jetliners before takeoff, as a precaution against short circuits "causing the doors to open uncommanded."

United, which started pulling cargo-door circuit breakers before takeoff on all 747 flights last summer, has been the only airline to take this precaution.

"What we found," said NTSB board chairwoman Susan Coughlin, "was that in fact the door functioned as designed, but there was a failure of a switch or wiring that caused an uncommanded opening of the door."

Boeing officials said they could not comment in detail on the ruling. "We have only seen selected pages," said spokesman Chris Villiers. "It will take us a few days to review everything.

"But we are completely confident of the safety of the 747 cargo compartment doors."

Boeing officials have maintained that reinforced locks and other improvements made since the Flight 811 incident make the cargo doors completely safe on the more than 840 747s flying.

The safety board is an advisory body and does not have authority to enforce its recommendations. But they are generally taken seriously by the FAA and the aviation industry.

Officials from United Airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association told the NTSB that the potential still exists for faulty switches and frayed wires to emit stray electrical signals that could unlatch the cargo doors on 747s without being commanded to do so.

According to documents filed with the NTSB, safety experts at United and ALPA contend this places too great a reliance on the reinforced locks recently installed on all 747s to keep the Everett-built jumbo jets safe.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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