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Passengers Friday praised an Aloha Airlines pilot who safely landed a jet-liner 15 minutes after an explosion ripped a large chunk out of the forward cabin.

"I give credit to the pilot. He brought that plane down so smoothly. It was just like riding in a Cadillac," said John Lopez, 40, one of 89 passengers aboard Flight 243 from Hilo, on the Hawaii Island, to Honolulu on Thursday."I've had worse landings in normal aircraft," Dan Dennin of Honolulu said.

The Boeing 737, piloted by Capt. Robert Schornstheimer, landed at Ka-hului Airport on Maui Island with one of its two engines aflame and about 15 to 20 feet of its front cabin exposed. The cause of the explosion was unknown.

Passenger Mae Kagihara said she thought the plane was going to crash, either in the Pacific Ocean or on land.

"But when we landed on land, it came down so smooth, it was better than a regular landing," Kagihara said.

"He did an excellent job of flying," said Dale Bringelson, owner of Island Aeromotive, who watched the landing from his company hangar at Kahului Airport.

"Because the upper structure was gone, there was a possibility of the plane buckling," Bringelson said. "If he hadn't been real careful, it could have busted in two. The man was highly skilled, and it speaks well of the profession."

Mark Eberly, a ramp supervisor at the airport, said he and a friend dropped to their knees as they saw the crippled plane land.

The jetliner was weaving as it headed in for a landing. "You could tell his plane was on one engine," Eberly said. "One engine was on fire and smoking."

"I have to give the pilot credit. He brought it in good," Eberly said.

Schornstheimer, 42, who left the Air Force in 1977 to join Aloha, is secretary-treasurer of the local council of the Air Line Pilots Assocation.

F. Emmett Miller, a fellow Aloha pilot who has flown 737s for 20 years, was asked what it would be like to fly a 737 with a big hole in it.

"It doesn't have to be a 737," Miller said. "It could be any airplane anywhere.

"I just saw the picture (of the jet) on CNN, a real clear picture, and I can't believe the airplane was still flying or that people sitting in that area survived," Miller said. "I think it's a statement probably any pilot would make looking at it. I just think that Bob Schornstheimer did a wonderful job."

Maurice Myers, president of Aloha Airlines, cited Schornstheimer's "extraordinary performance" in landing the plane.

Schornstheimer's wife, Mary, said she learned of the explosion and safe landing from friends."I knew there had been an incident, but I wasn't worried," she said. "I have a lot of confidence in his ability as a pilot."