Updated: Terrifying Southwest Near-Ocean Kauai Plunge Raises Alarms

Updated. A very frightening event has just come to light today, which was first based on a Reuters news report that we followed up on to confirm independently. A Southwest Airlines Hawaii flight interisland barely avoided a catastrophe in April, coming perilously close to crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kauai.

To be clear, this is not the Southwest Dutch Roll incident, which took place on another flight from Phoenix to Oakland.

The previously unreported incident took place on April 11, 2024. The flight departed Honolulu at 6:45 pm for what should have been about a 22-minute journey. Instead however, after the incident near Kauai, the plane returned to its points of origin, Honolulu, landing there at 8:09 pm. Near Kauai the plane dropped from an altitude of nearly 16k feet to an altitude of 409 feet as reported by FlightAware.

Southwest declined to offer the flight details we obtained independently due to an FAA oversight safety program that allows pilots and others to report concerns anonymously.

This incident was previously unreported by Southwest publicly. News of what happened was disseminated to Southwest pilots through internal communication last week. “The Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 jet briefly dropped at an abnormally high rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute before the flight crew pulled up to avoid disaster.” Another report about the memo said, the captain had placed the less experienced first officer in charge in spite of bad weather. The first officer inadvertently cut the aircraft’s speed, which resulted in the rapid descent. A warning system alarm was followed by the pilot ordering increased thrust that then resulted in a climb rate of 8.5k feet per minute.

The incident occurred on a 100-mile interisland flight from Honolulu as the aircraft attempted to land at Lihue Airport on Kauai. Facing obscured visibility and unable to visually identify the runway, the flight crew reportedly opted to abort the landing and return to Oahu. This incident included a series of critical maneuvers that put the passengers and crew on what is being described as a hair-raising ride reminiscent of a roller coaster.

Southwest, with only five years of experience in Hawaii, is not as knowledgeable about our weather anomalies as 90-year-old Hawaiian Airlines.

According to flight data from Flightaware, the aircraft’s altitude dropped drastically in seconds to just 409 feet above the ocean’s surface. The sudden descent was followed by the aggressive climb. A former commercial pilot quoted in the article likened the flight’s erratic behavior to being “pitching up and pitching down with the power and close to out of control.”

The flight’s captain had assigned the less experienced first officer to pilot the short journey despite dealing with the extremely challenging weather. The first officer’s suggested lapse in handling the situation, including inappropriate thrust adjustments, triggered an automated alarm warning of the proximity to the ocean’s surface. Fortunaely, the captain’s immediate corrective actions averted a potential disaster.

This close call comes amid a series of alarming safety incidents across the airline industry. Southwest has responded by reaffirming its commitment to safety and emphasizing continuous improvement in its Safety Management System. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has initiated an investigation into the incident, which highlights ongoing challenges in airline safety and performance.

Reminiscent of the United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner plunge incident which occurred off Maui.

Last year’s chilling incident involved United Airlines Flight 1722, a Boeing 787 departing from Maui to San Francisco. It is another stark reminder of the dangers posed by severe weather to aviation. Shortly after takeoff, amidst a brutal Hawaii winter storm, UA 1722 experienced a sudden and drastic altitude drop. The aircraft plummeted from an altitude of 2,200 feet to a perilous 750 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

That alarming descent was captured by FlightRadar24 Pro and highlighted the extreme weather conditions that day. Thankfully, due to the stringent safety protocols, all passengers and crew were seated with their seatbelts fastened, which likely prevented any injuries.

The United incident, which was at first not widely reported on either, led to an investigation coordinated with the FAA and ALPA, resulting in additional training for the pilots involved. That episode underscores the critical importance of stringent safety measures and training in ensuring passenger safety amidst unpredictable weather patterns.

Beat of Hawaii editors encountered a strangely similar and uncomfortable incident on a Delta flight to Kauai.

Last year, editors Rob and Jeff were on a Delta flight from Seattle to Kauai. The landing, on an otherwise uneventful flight, involved an incident wherein the approach was missed. The plane appeared to be abnormally low to the ground but was at very much the wrong positon for landing on Kauai. As a result, a last-minute go-around was initiated. Unfortunately the pilot on the Delta flight never mentioned to passengers what had happened. In a question to a decades-qualified Hawaii pilot, they conjectured, “Have to wonder if the massive hiring all the airlines are doing is diluting the experience level…”

Ensuring the safety of Hawaii flights is paramount, given the unique challenges posed by the islands’ often abrupt weather patterns and our mountainous topography. As the aviation community and FAA regulators delve deeper into this latest problem, the incident underscores the critical need for stringent safety protocols and robust pilot training to safeguard ever-popular Hawaii air travel.

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