Federal investigators have determined that miscommunication between pilots was the cause of a United Airlines jet descending dangerously close to the ocean’s surface shortly after takeoff from Hawaii in December. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a final report stating that the crew failed to properly manage the plane’s vertical path, airspeed, and nose direction due to a mix-up between the captain and co-pilot.
The incident occurred at Kahului Airport on the island of Maui during heavy rain. After a normal takeoff, the captain asked the co-pilot to reset the wing flaps. However, the co-pilot misheard and set the flaps to 15 degrees instead of the intended 5 degrees, according to the NTSB. This resulted in the plane pitching downward and accelerating without the pilots realizing it.
As the situation worsened, the co-pilot realized that they were descending and saw that they were breaking through the cloud cover. Recognizing the severity of the situation, the co-pilot repeatedly urged the captain to pull up while the plane’s ground proximity warning system sounded an alarm. The Boeing 777 descended over 1,400 feet towards the Pacific Ocean before the pilots were able to recover.
Despite the incident, the captain decided to continue the flight to San Francisco after being reassured by the chief flight attendant that everyone was okay and there was no apparent damage to the plane. The remainder of the journey was uneventful.
The United flight had 271 passengers and 10 crew members on board. The captain, aged 55, had nearly 20,000 hours of flying experience, while the co-pilot had 5,300 hours of flight time. Both pilots are still employed by United.
In response to the incident, United Airlines expressed its commitment to the safety of its crew and customers. The airline stated that it would use the lessons learned from this flight to improve the training of all United pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates airlines, confirmed that the pilots voluntarily reported the incident under a safety-reporting program and took appropriate action.
The incident only gained attention when an aviation publication analyzed the data from the plane. The NTSB was not made aware of the incident until two months later, by which time the flight recorder’s data had been recorded over.
It is worth noting that this incident occurred on the same day that a different flight operated by Hawaiian Airlines encountered severe turbulence, resulting in injuries to 36 people. The National Weather Service had issued an advisory for thunderstorms and unstable air in the area.
Overall, the NTSB investigation highlights the importance of clear communication and proper management of aircraft control systems in ensuring the safety of all passengers and crew. Lessons learned from this incident will contribute to enhanced training and safety practices within the airline industry.