SAN FRANCISCO — A jumbo jet with 192 people aboard was forced to dump its fuel and return to San Francisco International Airport on Thursday after part of the left wing tore off.
The Pan Am airliner made a normal landing at 1:50 p.m. PST, 43 minutes after it left en route to Narita International Airport outside Tokyo, said Walt Fuller, a Federal Aviation Administration specialist.
The leading edge slat that broke helps lift the plane on takeoff but is not needed in flight, according to FAA and airline officials. "It's not problem, really," said Thomas Carman, a control tower supervisor.
As a precaution, the airport was placed on standby alert, said Fuller, who watched the plane land with emergency crews at the ready. FAA administrative assistant Lovey Williams said there were no injuries among the 177 passengers and 15 crew members.
"About two minutes after we took off, a big hunk of the wing just came off. It tore off like a piece of paper," said airman first class Alfred Conley, who was sitting beside the emergency exit over the left wing.
Airline spokesman James Arey disputed passenger claims that the plane wobbled in the air, saying "the vibration was not unlike that of a takeoff." He said the 6-foot-long, 18-inch wide slat that broke off is one of 13 slats on each side of the aircraft, and is not vital to the plane's operation.
"The captain stabilized the airplane and assessed what needed to be done," said Arey. "He had two options. One option was to return immediately, or to go up to maneuvering altitude and be able to dump fuel so they could lighten the airplane to make it safer."
Arey said Capt. Dwight Wygant chose to dump 150,000 pounds of fuel.
Asked if the slats had fallen off before, Arey said "of course," but was unable to say what type of planes or what airlines were involved in any previous incidents.
The landing "was completely normal," Arey said.