Feds investigate Southwest flight’s rapid descent off Kauai

FILE PHOTO: A Southwest plane is shown at the gate in 2023 at Kahului Airport in Kahului, Maui. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON — A Southwest Airlines Co. passenger flight in April came within 400 feet of slamming into the ocean off the coast of Hawaii after weather conditions forced pilots to bypass a landing attempt.

The Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 jet briefly dropped at an abnormally high rate of over 4,000 feet a minute before the flight crew pulled up to avoid disaster, according to a memo that Southwest distributed to pilots last week, which was seen by Bloomberg News. No one was injured on the flight, which safely returned to its departure airport in Honolulu.

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After inquiries from Bloomberg, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating the incident.

The previously unreported mishap adds to a spate of safety incidents that have caught the public’s attention as airlines have ramped up flying since the pandemic. It also comes as Southwest management faces growing pressure from activist firm Elliott Investment Management and other investors over frustrations with the company’s lagging financial performance and insular corporate culture.

“Nothing is more important to Southwest than safety,” the airline said in an emailed statement about the Hawaii flight. “Through our robust Safety Management System, the event was addressed appropriately as we always strive for continuous improvement.”

Southwest Flight 2786 dropped from an altitude of roughly 1,000 feet to 400 feet above the ocean in just a few seconds, according to data from ADS-B Exchange, a flight tracking website. The plane, which was near Kauai’s Lihue Airport, then began a rapid climb.

The pilot was “pitching up and pitching down with the power and close to out of control — very close,” Kit Darby, a former commercial airline pilot and flight instructor, said in an interview after reviewing details of the flight. “It would feel like a roller coaster ride.”

According to Southwest’s review, the incident occurred following an aborted landing attempt due to bad weather that blocked the pilots from seeing the runway by a specified altitude.

The captain opted to put the “newer” first officer in command on the short flight to Lihue despite the forecasts, according to the memo.

The less-experienced first officer “inadvertently” pushed forward on the control column while following movement of the thrust lever caused by the plane’s automatic throttle. The pilot then cut the speed, causing the airplane to descend. Soon after, a warning system sounded alarms signaling the jet was getting too close to the surface and the captain ordered the first officer to increase thrust. The plane then “climbed aggressively” at 8,500 feet a minute, the memo said.

Flights preparing for a landing normally glide down at a rate of 1,500 to 2,000 feet a minute early in the approach, Darby said, and slow to 800 feet about five miles out from the airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board isn’t aware of the Southwest incident, a spokesperson said. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association declined to comment.

Southwest declined to provide the flight number or specify the date of the incident, citing an FAA-overseen safety program under which pilots and other employees can report concerns anonymously.

The carrier concluded in its review of the recent mishap that proper pilot monitoring and better communication between crew members is critical. Among other steps, it pledged to review industry and internal data related to its procedures and training protocols.

The April flight comes just under a year and a half after a similar incident involving a United Airlines flight leaving Maui in December 2022.

The NTSB investigated the Boeing 777 operated by United that came within 748 feet of crashing into the ocean one minute after it departed Kahului Airport for San Francisco in bad weather conditions. According to the NTSB report, the incident occurred due to confusion over the plane’s wing flaps after a miscommunication between the pilots.

The flight continued on with no further issues. The NTSB report said that United changed its training procedures and “issued an awareness campaign about flight path management at their training center” after the incident. United also said it conducted an investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the pilots involved received additional training.

Earlier this year, an American Airlines flight made a ”hard landing” on the runway at Kahului Airport, sending one passenger and five flight attendants to the hospital.

The FAA investigated the incident involving the American Airbus A320 that flew to Kahului from Los Angeles in late January. American said that “the aircraft taxied to the gate under its own power and customers deplaned normally,” and that the aircraft was taken out of service for inspection.

Separately Friday, Reuters news agency reported that the National Transportation Safety Board said today it is investigating why a Boeing 737 MAX operated by Southwest rolled during a flight to Phoenix last month.

The NTSB said the plane experienced what the crew said was a “Dutch roll” at 34,000 feet while en route from Phoenix to Oakland, California, on May 25. Such lateral asymmetric movements are named after a Dutch ice skating technique and can pose serious safety risks.

The board said pilots regained control of the plane, landed it safely and no one among the 175 passengers and six crew were injured during the incident. In a subsequent inspection, Southwest found damage to structural components, the NTSB said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which said damage was seen in a standby power-control unit, said it is also investigating and working “closely with the NTSB and Boeing to investigate this event.”

Boeing declined to comment on the Dutch Roll incident, referring questions to Southwest, which said it is participating in the investigation.

Star-Advertiser staff writer Kacie Yamamoto contributed to this report.

Separately, the FAA confirmed it is investigating a Southwest 737 MAX 8 passenger flight in April that came about 400 feet of the ocean off the coast of Kauai after bad weather conditions prompted pilots to bypass a landing attempt at Lihue airport.

During the go-around, the first officer “inadvertently pushed forward on the control column while following thrust lever movement commanded by the autothrottle,” according to a June 7 memo seen by Reuters and the plane began to descend rapidly hitting a maximum descent rate of about 4,400 feet a minute.

The memo said “safety data confirmed the crew received a “DON’T SINK” oral warning followed by a “PULL UP” oral warning, but the first officer later said the crew did not hear the warnings.

The pilots in a post-debrief said seeing the severity of the flight “through the animations was a significant, emotional event,” the Southwest memo said, adding the crew participated in comprehensive corrective actions and the airline is reviewing data and trends related to its procedures, training, standards, and performance.