close
close

The southwesterly flight came within 400 feet of impacting the ocean

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

The Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 plane briefly descended at an abnormally high speed of more than 4,000 feet per minute before the flight crew stopped to avoid disaster, according to a memo Southwest distributed to pilots last week and seen by Bloomberg News. No one was injured during the flight, which returned safely to the departure airport in Honolulu.

When asked by Bloomberg, the US Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating the incident.

The previously unreported accident adds to a wave of safety incidents that have captured public attention as airlines have ramped up flying since the pandemic. It also comes as Southwest management faces increasing pressure from activist firm Elliott Investment Management and other investors over frustrations over 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 flight to Hawaii. “Thanks to our robust safety management system, the event was handled appropriately as we always strive for continuous improvement.”

Southwest Flight 2786 descended from an altitude of about 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 Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai, then began a rapid climb.

The pilot “was jerking up and down with the power and was almost out of control — very close,” Kit Darby, a former commercial 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 assessment, the incident occurred after an aborted landing attempt due to bad weather that prevented the pilots from seeing the runway at a certain altitude.

The captain chose to put the “newer” first officer in command on the short flight to Lihue despite the predictions, the memo said.

The less experienced first officer “accidentally” pushed forward on the control column while following the throttle movement caused by the aircraft’s automatic throttle. The pilot then reduced speed, causing the plane to descend. Shortly afterwards, a warning system sounded indicating that the aircraft was getting too close to the surface and the captain ordered the first officer to increase thrust. The plane then “climbed aggressively” at a speed of 8,000 feet per minute, the memo said.

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

The National Transportation Safety Board is not 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-monitored safety program that allows pilots and other employees to report concerns anonymously.

The airline concluded in its assessment of the recent accident that proper monitoring of pilots and better communication between crew members are crucial. It pledged, among other things, to review industry and internal data related to its procedures and training protocols.

The Southwest incident is reminiscent of an event that occurred in December 2022 when a United Airlines Holdings Inc. flight. came within about 750 feet of the ocean after suddenly landing shortly after takeoff from another airport in Hawaii. That incident was investigated by both the FAA and the NTSB, which found that the accident was the result of miscommunication between the plane’s pilots.

The pilots involved in that flight received additional training following the incident.

Southwest was little changed at the close of regular trading in New York on Friday.

Subscribe to the CFO Daily newsletter to stay up to date on the trends, issues and executives shaping corporate finances. Free sign-up.