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Southwest Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashed just 400 feet above the ocean near Hawaii after apparent pilot error

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A Southwest Airlines 737 MAX 8 plummeted just 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean after a junior pilot on board made a serious mistake. The entire incident happened months ago, but is only now coming to light after Southwest Airlines sent a memo to its pilots about the sequence of events.

Southwest Airlines 737 plunged to just 400 feet above sea level after Lihue Go-Around

As first reported by Jon Ostrower (and thanks to several of you for sending me this story yesterday), this is what happened:

  • Southwest Flight 2786 traveled from Honolulu (HNL) to Lihue (LIH) on April 11, 2024
  • The flight was operated by a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft (registration N8788L)
  • A senior captain operated together with a junior first officer, as usual
  • The weather at Lihue Airport was bad
  • The captain let the first officer pilot the flight
  • As they approached Lihue, the weather deteriorated and a restart was necessary
  • During the go-around, the first officer “accidentally” pushed the control column forward and then reduced speed, causing the aircraft to descend
  • The flight quickly descended from 1,000 feet to 400 feet above the ocean
  • Despite audio and visual cockpit warnings, the first officer did not notice them
  • Fortunately, the captain noticed and instructed the first officer to “aggressively” increase thrust
  • The plane rose at a speed of 8,500 feet per minute (i.e. passengers felt like they were on a roller coaster)
  • WN2786 returned to Honolulu and then departed again, this time with the captain in the aircraft
  • The plane landed in Lihue without incident
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The flight path of WN2786 on April 11, 2024 / image: Flight Aware

Here’s the memo Ostrower shared after Bloomberg wrote a story about it:

Southwest believes it has addressed the problem:

“Nothing is more important to Southwest than safety. Through our robust safety management system, the event was handled appropriately as we always strive for continuous improvement.”

And let me add kudos to Southwest for openly discussing this instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

I understand why you would pair a senior captain with a junior first officer. It makes perfect sense that the captain would want the first officer to fly this leg, because it definitely provides the kind of hands-on experience that a simulator won’t necessarily prepare you for.

And yes, even though there is no room for critical mistakes when flying an airplane with more than 200 people on board, I am hopeful that learning from this mistake will make the first officer a much better pilot. There are definitely some red flags here (like not being able to hear the alarms), but this is how we learn and this is how we become experts and based on everything that’s happened since April (read the memo above), it seems I’m reminded that Southwest is using this admittedly frightening incident as a great learning tool for all pilots.

CONCLUSION

A Southwest Airlines 737 came within 400 feet of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii and it appears pilot error was the cause. Fortunately, the system worked as intended (two heads are better than one), with the senior captain taking over and safely navigating the aircraft.

Is there concern about the first officer? Certainly. But the accountability and transparency of this incident will help pilots both within Southwest and beyond.

Please do me a favor. I saw coverage of this incident in other places with comments blaming diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). How stupid if you have no idea who was flying this plane. Furthermore, a woman or a person with dark skin must meet the same standards as a white man when it comes to pilot certification. Can we just skip today’s DEI speculation?


top image: Southwest