It came up during a documentary on the jumbo jet.
While reviewing the handful of 747 accidents caused by airframe failings, the narrator mentioned that the United Airlines 747-122 – which had lost its cargo door out of Honolulu on February 24th, 1989 – was repaired and returned to service.
That’s not surprising in itself. Alarming as the post-accident images appear, the actual damage to the airplane wasn’t that severe. The fact that Capt. David Cronin and his crew could bring the flight to a successful landing is testimony to the airframe’s fundamental integrity, as well as their teamwork and skill.
Nope, I was just curious about what became of United Airlines’ N4713U after the media intensity surrounding that fateful night. Was it was still flying?
At the very least, I thought I’d find a story that got more and more “interesting” as the airliner aged. . . And I wouldn’t be disappointed.
But first, let’s back-track a little.
On its two engines
United Airlines Flight 811 departed Honolulu for Auckland, New Zealand just before 2 in the morning on February 24th, 1989. As it climbed through 22,000 feet the forward cargo door opened into the airstream and was torn off with a large piece of the aircraft skin immediately above. This caused floor damage in the main cabin where the door’s hinge beam was torn away, accompanied by an explosive decompression. Almost instantly, nine Business Class passengers were either torn or blown out of the airplane, eight of them still strapped in their seats.
Debris damaged the right wing, flaps, and horizontal stabiliser; the vertical stabiliser; and both right-side engines. The fact that debris entered the No.4 engine shows just how forcible the explosive decompression had been.
Captain Cronin initiated an emergency descent while turning the plane back toward Hawaii on its two left-hand engines. Fourteen minutes later he made a successful landing despite the damaged flaps, and the aircraft was evacuated. In repeated simulator tests after the event, United check pilots were unable repeat Cronin’s feat.
The resulting investigation found that the cargo door latch pins showed signs of wear indicating the door had been ‘out of rig’ or not properly aligned for some time. There was also a history of problems with the forward and rear cargo doors on the airplane, including repeated latching, sealing and lock indication issues from December 1988 up until the in-flight failure.
The final report implicated United, Boeing and the FAA for not pursuing upgrades to the cargo door locking mechanism more vigorously, after a run of similar incidents, near incidents and fatal accidents involving wide-body jets over preceding years. Controversially, the report also suggested that ground staff had improperly latched and/or check ed the door before departure – a finding that was overturned after further investigation and recovery of door sections from the ocean floor almost a year later.
Whether the cause was mechanical, electrical, human or cumulative may never fully be known.
The 89th jumbo
The aircraft involved, N4713U, was a 1970-vintage Boeing 747-122. She was the 89th jumbo jet Boeing built, msn #19875, and made her first flight from Boeing’s Everett plant at Paine Field on the October 20th, 1970. United took delivery of their shiny new ‘Friend Ship’ jumbo soon after, and put her into service on November 11th of that year. (See the link at the end of this story, to go back to those days.)
But by the time of the Honolulu incident she was 18½ years old and had accumulated 58,815 hours over 15, 028 flight cycles. In that time, there hadn’t been any significant incidents or damage – although there was a fairly typical history of age-related corrosion, fatigue cracks, and the engine troubles that plagued all early 747s.
In fact, the airplane had lost its No.3 engine on short finals into Honolulu just days before the accident flight, on February 17th, 1989 – this time due to a false engine fire warning triggering an automatic shut-down. (In a strange twist, the crew would get no fire indications from the No. 3 or 4 warning systems on the 24th, despite visible fires coming from both engines.)
After the incident
After the Flight 811 incident, United made the decision to repair the aircraft and return it to service. Although the damage certainly looked shocking, it was far from substantial. Apart from the main beam that the cargo door had been hinged to, none of the affected metal was structural. Flying surface leading edges, fuselage hoops, floor beams, stringers and skin could all be spliced in or replaced.
On 1 September 1989, United secured the new registration N4724U for #19875, although a Service Difficulty Report was filed for N4713U on September 15th, indicating the aircraft was still wearing her old registration while at United’s San Francisco maintenance base mid-month.
(That SDR, by the way, reported corrosion of fuselage stringers in the aft cargo pit, found “during a major overhaul”. This could only have been the ongoing repair process, which must have been begun at Honolulu and completed at SFO. Anyway, it was considered “prudent” to splice in replacement stringer sections.)
Regardless, the old girl went back to work for United on October 3rd, 1989 and continued on without any serious problems.
Although that’s not to say her second life was trouble free.
Past her prime
On the April 2nd, 1990 the No.4 engine had to be shut down 90 minutes out of Narita, Japan, due to a failed fuel pump, and the airplane crossed the Pacific on her three remaining JT9Ds. And on October 22nd, 1990 the aircraft left tyre tread on the runway at LAX after departing for Narita, and had to land in Japan under an amber alert. Another amber alert followed at London Heathrow on June 16th, 1991, due to a No.3 hydraulic system failure; and on July 7th, 1991 the aircraft had to dump fuel and return to Honolulu after the No.4 engine overheated during climb, refused to idle, and had to be shut down by pulling the fire handle.
The left main gear failed to deploy, then deployed but wouldn’t lock, on approach to San Francisco on September 1st, 1991; engines failed for various reasons every year or so; and the No.2 left leading edge flap failed to retract during climb on December 17th, 1996, for no detectable reason.
Worse than all those systems failures though, the aircraft was now demonstrably past her prime and the cracks were starting to show. Literally.
Cracked and delaminated
Scheduled inspections would turn up the usual fatigue cracking and corrosion of various parts – because that’s what scheduled inspections are for.
However on September 11th, 1990, a large crack was found in a No.2 engine pylon attachment lug. Then, during the the next A-check inspection on October 29th, the No.2 Left, No.5 Left and No.1 Right entry doors were all found to have cracks in the door beams, emanating from the hinge attachment holes. (The door beams were subsequently shipped to Boeing for fatigue analysis.)
Next, the right wing’s inboard trailing edge panel came loose and separated during takeoff on June 24th, 1994. The aircraft had to return to the airport and have the panel, the fore-flap and a damaged trailing edge mid-panel replaced before it could return to the air.
A fortnight later, on July 5th, the outer trailing edge flap of the same wing stuck at 7º during climb out, and N4724U had to make another return to the airport for repairs.
Finally, the plane was in mid-flight on June 15th, 1996 when a large crack was noticed on the main upper skin panel of the left wing. By the time the flight ended, the panel was cracked and delaminated right across it’s span-wise width.
By now approaching 83,000 hours in the air, #19875 was at the end of her profitable service with United. On January 9th, 1997 she was flown to Las Vegas and parked in storage.
And that’s when things got weird.
An uncertain past
Normally when an old jet goes into the boneyard, it comes out in pieces. #19875 had a far more promising turnaround – United sold her to the fledgling Air Dabia on March 18th, 1997.
Air Dabia was a short lived airline based in The Islamic Republic of Gambia, a sovereign sliver of Western Africa that lies along both banks of the Gambia River and is virtually surrounded by Senegal. It’s national identity goes back to the days when the river was a portal for European slave traders.
The airline’s owner was multi-millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, a Gambian national with an uncertain past. He was apparently born in the Saharan nation of Mali, in a village called Dabia, sometime around 1945. That story at least fits with the name he chose for his airline. But the source of his vast fortune was a mystery. Rumours ranged from textile trading in India to finding hugely valuable diamonds in the spoil heaps of Liberian mines.
More likely, he’d trafficked arms to various African governments. He was allegedly a personal friend of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and he certainly had close ties to the government of Senegal as well as The Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who’d seized power in a 1994 military coup.
Sissoko established Air Dabia as a charter operation, to ferry Gambia’s muslim faithful to and from the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. He’d already purchased a pair of old Boeing 727s during 1996, allegedly beating down the vendors price by $315,000 through the negotiating tactic of having Gambian authorities confiscate the delivery pilot’s passport and hold him under house arrest until a deal was struck.
But by the time he took ownership of United’s retired N4724U and acquired the Gambian registration C5-FBS for it, Sissoko was in trouble himself.
In July 1996 two of his operatives purchased a pair of Bell UH-1 “Huey”s from a Miami broker, and prepared them for shipment to Gambia. Because the de-fanged Hueys could easily be converted back into their original gunship configuration, US Customs required a special export license. The men tried to export the choppers anyway and were detained. They then tried to grease the rails by offering one of the agents special treatment at some of Sissoko’s casinos and resorts, and then a $30,000 cash bribe. Unless they were the world’s best-paid removalists, the cash had to have come from Sissoko.
So at the end of August 1996 Sissoko was arrested by Interpol in Geneva, Switzerland, to face US federal charges of bribery and violating export regulations. He spent two months in a Swiss jail cell contemplating extradition then, in late October, agreed to front the US Federal Court in Miami.
The case ran through to sentencing in March 1997 where, through a plea bargain, Sissoko was handed four months in jail (less time served in Switzerland) and four months’ house arrest in his rented Florida condo. Using his carefully groomed network of political contacts, he still managed to delay the jail time until November 1997.
But to cut a long story short, Sissoko was very definitely based in Florida (at the Federal Court’s insistence) when he took delivery of his “new” jumbo that April. The aircraft was flown from Las Vegas to Miami and readied for its transfer to Banjul, the capital of Gambia.
There, US cabin crew, who’d joined the new airline on the promise of generous pay rates (which they would never see) watched in amazement as the jet’s main cabin was stuffed with boxes and containers, before a handful of Sissoko’s coterie took their seats for the trans-Atlantic hop.
“There’s no FAA in Africa”
When the senior flight attendant looked #19875’s cabin over more carefully she noticed there were no fire extinguishers, life rafts or oxygen tanks on board. When she questioned the state of the airplane she was simply told “There’s no FAA in Africa.”
The old 747 duly departed but, over an hour out of Banjul, a 10m panel separated from the upper surface of the starboard wing and collided with the horizontal stabiliser before falling away. The honeycomb interior of the wing’s skin was left exposed until C5-FBS landed in Gambia.
There, when the flight attendant learned that Air Dabia planned to repair the wing with speed tape, she decided to quit. Two other Air Dabia pilots quit with her. It would take the trio a week to get out of Gambia, using consular assistance and tickets they had to buy for themselves.
Several other Air Dabia employees would need consular assistance to get out of Africa after quitting, and would suffer local police and military harassment before they could escape. None would get the wages they’d been promised.
There’s a rumour that one Air Dabia flight crew became so frustrated with not being paid that they took $100,000 they’d been provided for fuel and repairs, abandoned their 727, and walked away.
Our 747 meanwhile, began her new life carrying Hajj pilgrims to and from Mecca – with no rest for her cabin crew. They flew directly from Banjul to Bamoko in Mali, and then back and forth between Bamoko and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia for three solid days. The flight attendants never got off the plane, snatching sleep in spare seats or on the galley floor, and the plane never received any maintenance.
After 72 hours they were given an 8-hour break, then re-boarded #19875 for a flight to Brazzaville in Congo to pick up Mali nationals fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). The crew were told the Government of Congo would kill the Mailnese if they weren’t rescued. So despite the promises of only carrying Hajj pilgrims, and despite landing in a raging storm that still didn’t drown out the sound of nearby gunfire, they loaded 800 passengers onto the 400 seat jumbo and took off.
Once again, Boeing’s robust engineering carried #19875 through.
Later the same crew would work a solid 6-day stretch carrying Hajj pilgrims, and were only saved from another trip to Brazzaville on May 19th, 1997, when engine problems grounded C5-FBS in Dakar, Senegal. More crew decided to quit. They too would face harassment from Air Dabia staff and Gambian police before US consular staff helped them begin their journey home, still unpaid.
Exactly what happened to #19875 next is a little hazy. Presumably she continued to fly Hajj pilgrims between Western Africa and Mecca, along with whatever errands Sissoko’s high-level friends requested, for the next few months.
She turned up at Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport in the UK in late October 1997, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Scotland’s capital – providing a grandiose if somewhat tatty entrance for the representatives of Africa’s smallest nation.
By November 1997, however, the 28-year-old airplane was back in the USA, and was listed as stored at Opa-Locka airport, just north of Miami, in February 1998. Worse, in January of 1998 a complaint was filed by the Dubai Islamic Bank alleging Sissoko had bought his jumbo with funds that were stolen from the bank using black magic. As a result of that action, C5-FBS was repossessed in February of 2000.
Meanwhile, Sissoko had been allowed to leave the US after only one of his four months of house arrest, and was living in mansion in Mali – fighting extradition to Dubai, with all his international assets frozen.
End of the line
At some point, presumably shortly after the seizure, #19875 was flown by her court-appointed owners to Plattsburgh International Airport (formerly Plattsburgh AFB) in the far northeast of New York state for an overhaul.
But by now, her luck had well and truly run out. The company that had managed her recovery went out of business and all maintenance work ceased after her number 4 engine had been removed. Later, the maintenance company pulled out of the airport and left her behind. So by the end of 2001 the venerable first generation jumbo had progressed from ‘orphaned’ to ‘abandoned’ and she was left on the Plattsburgh ramp to await her fate.
That fate would amount to little more than establishing sufficient ownership for her to be sold as scrap. It took over a year for the legal niceties to be completed, but in June 2003 the axe finally fell.
Boeing msn 19875/89 – United’s shiny new ‘Friend Ship’ jumbo N4713U of 1970; the 747-122 that survived an explosive decompression out of Honolulu in 1989 and carried most of her complement back to earth on two remaining engines; N4724U, which rose from the accident to carry thousands more passengers around the world; and C5-FBS that became a tool for one man’s plutocratic exploitation and neglect – was torn apart where it stood at Plattsburgh International Airport, NY.
The epitaph. Can you tell?
So what became of United Airlines’ N4713U? Well, scattered to the trade winds is the short answer – a diaspora of reconditioned parts and recycled aluminium.
I’d be intrigued to hear the long answer though, if anyone can tell me more details. I’m sure there are parts of the airplane in service even today; and others that are in a warehouse somewhere, still waiting for their second, third – or is it fourth? – life.
I’d like to dedicate this article to the memory of the nine passengers who were lost from United Flight 811 on February 24th, 1989:
• Lee Campbell, Wellington, New Zealand
• Harry Craig, Morristown, New Jersey
• Susan Craig, Morristown, New Jersey
• Dr. J. Michael Crawford, Sydney, Australia
• Anthony Fallon, Long Beach, California
• Barbara Fallon, Long Beach, California
• Mary Handley, Bay City, Michigan
• Rose Harley, Hackensack, New Jersey
• John Swann, Sydney, Australia
As well as to all the good people who built, flew, crewed and maintained B747-122 msn 18975 through her long career with United Airlines and Air Dabia.
You know who you are. You’re awesome.
More on this great aircraft
This article now has a sequel. Well, a prequel. Check out Requiem For An Airliner (1) for a flight aboard N4713U when she was brand new; plus Requiem For An Airliner (2) to learn about her post-accident repair at Honolulu.