NTSB: Bolts on Boeing jetliner were missing before a panel blew out midflight

Feb 6, 2024, 12:16 PM | Updated: 6:04 pm

In this National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) handout photo, plastic covers the exterior of t...

In this National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) handout photo, plastic covers the exterior of the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737 Max 9 on Jan. 7, 2024 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: NTSB via Getty Images)

(Photo: NTSB via Getty Images)

Bolts that helped secure a panel to the frame of a Boeing 737 Max 9 were missing before the panel blew off the Alaska Airlines plane last month, according to accident investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report on the Jan. 5 incident Tuesday.

The report included a photo from Boeing, which worked on the panel, which is called a door plug. In the photo, three of the four bolts that prevent the panel from moving upward are missing. The location of the fourth bolt is obscured.

The investigators said that the lack of certain damage around the panel indicates that all four bolts were missing before the plane took off from Portland, Oregon.

Pilots were forced to make a harrowing emergency landing with a hole in the side of the plane.

Without the bolts, nothing prevented the panel from sliding upward and detaching from “stop pads” that secured it to the airframe.

The preliminary report said the plane arrived at Boeing’s factory near Seattle with five damaged rivets near the door plug, which had been installed by supplier Spirit AeroSystems. A Spirit crew replaced the rivets, which required removing the four bolts and opening the plug.

The report did not say who removed the bolts. It said that a text message between Boeing employees who finished working on the plane after the rivet job included the photo showing the plug with missing bolts.

The NTSB did not declare a probable cause for the accident — that will come at the end of an investigation that could last a year or longer.

Safety experts have said the accident could have been catastrophic if the Alaska jet had reached cruising altitude. The decompression in the cabin after the blowout would have been far stronger, and passengers and flight attendants might have been walking around instead of being belted into their seats.

When Alaska and United Airlines began inspecting their other Max 9s, they reported finding loose hardware including loose bolts in some of the door plugs.

The incident has added to questions about manufacturing quality at Boeing that started with the deadly crashes of two Max 8 jets two Max jets — Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopia in March 2019 — that killed a total of 346 people.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating whether Boeing and its suppliers followed proper safety procedures in manufacturing parts for the Max. The FAA has barred Boeing from speeding up production of 737s until the agency is satisfied about quality issues.

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker said Tuesday that his agency is about halfway through a six-week audit of manufacturing processes at Boeing and its key supplier on the Max, Spirit AeroSystems. He said the agency is confronted with two questions — what’s wrong with the Max 9, and “what’s going on with the production at Boeing?”

Sen. Cantwell speaks out after the NTSB report release

Washington Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, released a statement after the release of the preliminary NTSB report.

“(The) NTSB gave committee leaders an up-close look at the plug door that flew off Alaska Airlines flight 1282 and its initial finding that bolts securing it to the fuselage were missing.

The (report) on the Alaska Airlines flight 1282 accident underscores how important quality assurance is from manufacturers and how important quality control inspections from both manufacturers and the FAA are to the safety process,” Cantwell added. “We look forward to NTSB’s final report highlighting the importance of these safety practices.”

Cantwell added the committee will be holding oversight hearings “on these issues and the NTSB findings.”

Boeing responds to the NTSB report

In a statement released on its website Tuesday, Boeing wrote it “appreciates” the NTSB’s work and will review the organizations findings “expeditiously.” The company added that it “will continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the NTSB and the FAA investigations.”

“Whatever final conclusions are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened,” Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun said in the company statement. “An event like this must not happen on an airplane that leaves our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”

More on Boeing: Retired Navy admiral to lead probe after blowout fiasco

Boeing’s statement Tuesday went on to say it is taking immediate action to strengthen quality, including implementing a control plan to ensure all 737 Max 9 mid-exit door plugs are installed according to specifications. It added the company will implement plans to improve overall quality and stability across the 737 production system.

The company’s statement concludes by saying it will “open its factory to 737 customers to conduct their own additional reviews.” It claims the firm will also “fully and transparently support the FAA’s investigation, audit and oversight actions.”

“This added scrutiny – from ourselves, from our regulator and from our customers – will make us better. It’s that simple,” Calhoun is quoted as saying at the end of the company release.

Spirit AeroSystems, which Boeing spun off as a separate company nearly 20 years ago, said in a statement that it was reviewing the NTSB preliminary report and was working with Boeing and regulators “on continuous improvement in our processes and meeting the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability.”

Anonymous whistleblower: Boeing production a ‘disaster waiting to happen’

Last month, an anonymous whistleblower put the blame for a door plug blow-out solely on Boeing, slamming the company’s quality control process, and calling the 737 production system a
“rambling, shambling, disaster waiting to happen.”

But the report from the whistleblower claimed four bolts which hold the door plug in place, “were not installed when Boeing delivered the airplane.” That person added that “our own records reflect this.” The whistleblower wrote a long comment post off of a story published on aviation online publication Leeham News and Analysis (LNA) and claims to be a current Boeing employee. The original story where the comment appeared, “‘Unplanned’ removal, installation inspection procedure at Boeing” can be viewed here.

More from Heather Bosch: FAA is investigating Boeing, but Cantwell wants answers from FAA

Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant who is the managing editor of LNA, is convinced the author of the post is a person who works at Boeing.

A scenario where key bolts were missing also makes sense to pilot and aviation analyst John Nance.

“That has been my suspicion all along,” Nance said.

Contributing: The Associated Press; Heather Bosch, KIRO Newsradio; Steve Coogan, MyNorthwest

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NTSB: Bolts on Boeing jetliner were missing before a panel blew out midflight