“She went out of there like a fighter jet.”
Of all the great things that have been said about Boeing’s mighty 747, that simple observation probably says more for the people who designed, built and maintained the Queen of the Skies than any other.
Specifically, it was made by a Mr. Robert Craig Butler about the way 747-122, tail number N4713U, roared out of Honolulu for San Francisco just six months after a cargo door failure and explosive decompression had torn a huge hole out of its forward fuselage.
The fact that a 747 could sustain the damage it did and be flown back to a safe landing is incredible in itself. The fact that it could be repaired, returned to service and continue flying with such sparkling performance – even more so.
Mr. Butler was on the team that did that work. It was an amazing experience for all involved. And the jet roaring over their heads that day was the ultimate accolade for the recovery team.
By all accounts, their mammoth repair job was flawless. Every wire, every line, every piece of metal and every rivet would serve without complaint for another 15 years.
Landed on his feet
By his own admission, Robert Butler really landed on his feet. Getting drafted in 1964 wasn’t everybody’s idea of a lucky break. But it certainly worked out for him.
When his number came up, he had just finished a lacklustre high school career. He didn’t really know what he was going to do next, but when the call came from Uncle Sam the young man knew his upbringing in Carson City, NV was no preparation for either crawling in mud or putting to sea. So it would have to be the Air Force.
Surprisingly, his USAF entrance tests revealed a hidden talent. ‘We’re going to make you a jet mechanic’, he was told. ‘What’s that?’ he replied.
In its own unique way, the Air Force soon let him know.
Butler wound up overhauling McDonnell F-4 Phantom II engines in Tuscon, Arizona for three years, but chose to leave the Air Force when his time was done. Back home in Carson City, he saw an ad for A&P Mechanics to join United Airlines at its SFO maintenance base, so he and his brother drove down to San Francisco for the interview.
He must have made a good impression because the airline asked him to return the following day for further assessments. But this wasn’t in the plan! The two young men would have to spend the night in their car, getting what sleep they could, in order to make the unexpected appointment. Luckily the good folks from United found out and provided hotel accommodation for them both. Needless to say, Robert got the job. He was now a United A&P, working on their growing fleet of wide-body jets.
Emergency Field Service
For all the 747’s great achievements, no one could claim that the jumbo’s original Pratt & Whitney JT9Ds engines were trouble-free. While Robert Butler and his colleagues were assigned to phase checks on United’s 747s, 767s and DC-10s, in his own words: “We did a lot of engine changes. A lot.”
Butler would also routinely sign up for EFS – Emergency Field Service – when he clocked on each day (or night). EFS meant going wherever a jet needed them, usually to replace an engine. In fact, Butler and his colleagues became highly skilled in the art of changing big jet engines in the field. For a 747, they had the process down to a matter of hours; and they developed a system that allowed them to change tail-mounted #2 engines on DC-10s without the specialised lifting equipment of a maintenance hangar. It saved the airline a bundle in revenue hours.
Flight 811 to New Zealand
And volunteering for EFS was how Robert Butler and eight of his colleagues found themselves on a flight to Honolulu at the end of February 1989 – off to repair the most devastated 747 that had ever returned safely to an airport.
That aircraft was N4713U, msn #19875, which had been in service with United Airlines since November 1970. While she was operating as United flight 811 to New Zealand on February 24th, 1989, a faulty wiring bundle had unlatched her forward cargo door at 22,000 feet. The explosive decompression tore a huge piece out of the right forward fuselage, blowing debris into the leading edges of the right wing and empennage, as well as both the #3 and #4 engines.
Although nine lives were lost in the initial blast, and both right-side engines had to be shut down, Captain David Cronin and his crew skilfully flew their crippled jet back to Honolulu for a safe landing, saving the remaining 346 souls on board.
It was probably this feat of airmanship, rather than any practical cost-benefit analysis, that drove United’s decision to repair the airliner rather than write it off.
So an EFS team was flown out from San Francisco.
‘It was totally wrecked’
Naturally, Robert Butler and his colleagues knew about the accident and had seen initial media coverage showing the damaged airliner.
The morning after they arrived they were shown the jet, inside and out. The huge, gaping tear in the 747’s fuselage left the nine maintainers awe-struck. Passenger seats hung onto the edges of the hole; other seats were clearly missing.
“You know the photo of the aircraft being demolished,” says Butler. “That’s what the inside of the cabin looked like on this day too. It was chaos. It was totally wrecked.”
The dubbed their operation ‘Project Dutch’ – from the nickname of United’s Senior Technician and Foreman in Hawaii, who’d be their ‘handler’ on the island – and set to work.
Where to work
The first problem was where to work. United didn’t have a hangar at Honolulu, and the airport didn’t have any long-term parking space for the jet. The NTSB had had the aircraft towed onto adjacent Hickam Air Force Base (Hickam shares a runway with HNL) but the Air Force weren’t keen to have it parked there for months while the civilian crew repaired it.
In the end, the dilemma was solved in a time-honoured fashion – barter. The Project Dutch team offered to give Base Command all the metal and other parts they removed from the airplane, so the Air Force Fire Department could test their cutting equipment on the scrap. When they’d finished, they’d be free to sell the scrap and use the funds to improve facilities on the base.
It was the kind of deal that gets things done. “From then on, the Air Force guys were as helpful as you could want,” Butler recalls. They simply asked the United team not to look too hard into open hangars, or to use their cameras on the base. “We took our photos anyway,” laughs Butler.
Into the wind
With nothing but an exposed hardstand for a workshop, the A&Ps were advised to position their damaged charge with her nose pointing into the wind. This they duly did, getting the tug driver to park N4713U facing southwest toward the sea, where the winds were coming from.
A couple of hours later, some Boeing engineers pointed out that Hawaii’s prevailing summer winds were actually Northeast Trades and they should get the jet turned around. A tug was swiftly borrowed from the Air Force – and the NE Trades blew consistently from the very next day.
It was a lucky break. But if the winds could change once, they could change again. So, to minimise the danger of the big airliner weather vaning into every gust, it was decided to remove the vertical stabiliser.
This would be no simple task in an open, windy work space: A 747’s tail towers 19.3 metres (63 feet 5 inches) above the ground – and the actual tail surface makes up about half of that height. (The rest being fuselage and ground clearance.) What’s more, no-one at United had ever removed a 747’s tail before.
Fortunately, Boeing’s engineers were able to lend Project Dutch the relevant maintenance manuals and a tail sling flown out from Seattle.
So, with the help of a large mobile crane and its skilled local operators, Boeing’s and United’s combined team lifted the massive structure clear (with the finely balanced rudder still attached) and laid it alongside the airframe for the duration of the project.
Now they could really get to work.
Fuselage, flying surfaces and engines
Repairs to N4713U fell into three broad areas – fuselage, flying surfaces, and engines. It was obvious that engines #3 and #4 had ingested airframe parts, cabin debris and more. The United A&Ps would remove all four engines, but #3 and #4 were impounded by the NTSB.
As part of the process, the engines were flushed out with water and the water was captured and strained. Butler confirms that human remains were recovered from those engines in this way. Apart from that though, the experienced crew worked their way through all four power plants without any problems.
They also went through the fuselage and stripped the cabin bare. “Everything came out of the airplane,” recalls Butler. “I mean we cleaned it out, right back to the skin. Seats, fittings, furnishings and insulation all came out. It was a bare shell.
Meanwhile, the team from Boeing worked on the major airframe repairs. As the maker’s representatives, they took charge of the engineering assessments and structural remediation. Contrary to some rumours, a new nose section from an Air India 747 was not fitted to the hull. The engineers spliced new sections onto the existing hoops, stringers and other structural members, and fitted new skin plates. Internal systems were similarly repaired.
There at the end
Butler returned to California for health reasons as the United and Boeing teams continued to repair the damaged flight surfaces. That included re-skinning sections of the right wing, #3 and #4 engine pylons, aft fuselage, right horizontal stabiliser, and vertical stabiliser. The sub-structures also had to be inspected; while more complicated systems like flaps, leading-edge high-lift and anti-icing systems, and spoilers all needed to be repaired or replaced.
But Robert Butler did make it back to Hickam in time to help fit and test four new engines, ready for the airliner’s ferry flight home. He had been there at the beginning and he was determined to be there at the end.
Then, following all the inspections and repairs, every system was tested for flight-worthiness.
The project was completed with a traditional Hawaiian ceremony where the cabin crew of United Flight 811 were reunited with their jet, while a Kahu wished the restored 747 many more safe takeoffs and landings – a blessing she would certainly receive.
That memory has stayed with Butler ever since.
The lightest, strongest 747
In all, it was an incredible amount of work and it was all done in the open, on an exposed hardstand 2,400 miles from the crew’s main source of parts, reference materials and tools. Everything they’d need – from new engines to an AN365 nut and the wrench to tighten it – had to be anticipated and brought out from the mainland.
To their lasting credit, the team completed ‘Project Dutch’ in under six months. And when they finally packed away their tools, #19875 was virtually good as new.
By mid-August the airplane was ready to fly back to San Francisco for refurbishment.
She was still a bare shell – apart from fuel, the flight crew was the only weight on board when she finally accelerated down the Honolulu runway, for the first time since February 24th, and leapt back into the air.
At that point in time, she was probably the lightest, strongest 747 that ever flew.
Like a phoenix
Quite rightly, Project Dutch stands as the highlight of Robert Butler’s career, even edging out his military service. It was a grand adventure, an extreme proficiency check and, ultimately, a crowning success.
He is justifiably proud of what was achieved during those months in Hawaii. And his pride is as strong today as it was on the morning at Hickam AFB, when he watched N4713U return to the sky “like a fighter jet.” Like a phoenix.
N4713U would spend another month in United’s San Francisco maintenance shops, being completely overhauled and fully refurbished for passenger service. In September 1989, United re-registered her as N4724U and flew her with that tail number for another eight years.
As the airliner continued in service the inevitable signs of ageing became more and more evident, until she was retired in January 1997. Then, in March 1997, she was purchased by Gambian millionaire Babani Sissoko to be the flagship for his rather questionable Air Dabia operation.
But that’s a different story…
Men like Robert Butler
In the end, this Queen of the Skies retained her dignity for another 15 years. No-one ever found reason to fault the extensive field repairs that the United and Boeing engineers made in Hawaii back in 1989.
Fate handed those A&Ps an unforgettable experience, and they acquitted themselves magnificently.
Most of the passengers she carried in her ‘second life’, and even many of the crew, had no clue of the aircraft’s earlier brush with disaster, or the efforts of men like Robert Butler – the team that returned her to such remarkably unremarkable safe service.
And I like to think that when the scrappers finally did tear #19875 apart at Plattsburgh, NY, in 2003, they found she was a bit tougher than most.