Both of the recent Hawaii near-crashes have brought scrutiny of pilots, as well as the FAA here in Hawaii. See why below.
We reported late yesterday an incident that was just revealed by the FAA: Terrifying UAL Near-Miss at Honolulu Risked Catastrophy Per FAA.
Did Pilots or FAA cause the United Airlines 777 Honolulu runway incident?
In that latest incident, a UAL Boeing 777 widebody jet at Honolulu Airport crossed the runway where a smaller Kamaka Air cargo plane was landing. NTSB indicated the incident presented a “significant risk of a catastrophic outcome.”
Beat of Hawaii spoke with a very experienced Honolulu-based widebody airline pilot friend last night. He said the HNL near-crash between the Boeing widebody passenger plane and the Grand Caravan cargo plane comes down to one of two causes.
- If the pilot had been cleared to cross the runway, it was “totally on the FAA.” He indicated that FAA could have been short-staffed generally or at that time and that “Honolulu has a relatively junior FAA base.”
- Had the pilot not received permission to cross and was instructed to “hold short” of the runway, then it would have been totally the pilot’s responsibility.
Pilot Rich said, “Either the Tower gave clearance to cross the Live Runway or they did not. If they did, then we have to ask what caused that, if they did not we have to ask why the UAL flight entered a live runway without clearance. Then we have to see if the landing aircraft had been final clearance to land on that runway or not. I am wondering if it is related to confusion over runway closures and changes.”
Regular commenter John said, “Don’t think there is anything other than this is a simple human mistake and perhaps it would be a little premature to read into anything else.”
Both Rich and the other pilot both mentioned possible confusion about the Honolulu Airport complete or partial runway closure, which is still ongoing.
The airline pilot told us that the Kamaka Air Grand Caravan, while a frequent part of air traffic in Honolulu, is still a tiny plane compared to the United Boeing 777 airliner. He said that the pilot would have tried to confirm no conflicting air traffic visually. But, for various reasons, and depending on the takeoff or landing circumstances of the United plane, which hasn’t thus far been revealed, the Kamaka airplane might simply not have been seen.
This wasn’t the only recent such Hawaii incident, unfortunately.
United Airlines Flight 1722: possible causes.
There are many questions about what went wrong, which caused the United Airlines flight department Maui to drop precipitously during strong gusts and possible wind shear. But should the weather take any or all of the blame?
Some reports have mentioned that pilots may have forgotten to program the plane’s autopilot correctly. There’s also been discussion of a possible fault with the autopilot system or something else, which at this point has been said to be extremely unlikely. Also, the pilots on that flight are reported to have 25k combined flying time.
When we asked the widebody pilot about this incident, the first thing he mentioned was “were the flaps retracted?” He further indicated that wind shear would not have been the cause of the precipitous drop. So were the Boeing 777 flap settings correct for that point in the climb-out? Flap settings are critical to the ability to generate lift. We’ll leave it to other pilots here to comment since this is outside our wheelhouse.
United has already said that the crew has received additional training due to the problem. Also, the crew filed safety reports but did not notify the NTSB at the time. We will watch to see if a NASA report was filed.
Others have commented that the fact that the plane didn’t return to Maui or Honolulu and proceeded trans-Pacific some 2,500 miles is of concern, even if returning to Hawaii wasn’t technically required. If the issue was a pilot-induced error, however, there may have been no reason to look any further. So despite the extraordinary circumstances during the initial moments of the flight, they may have chosen to continue. Enters “NASA report.”
Did pilots in either case file NASA ASRS reports?
We’d never heard of this until we had the conversation yesterday with our airline pilot friend, who explained how this system works. We then researched it further.
The FAA employs NASA, since it is independent and without regulatory/enforcement capability, to be a third party in an aviation incident reporting program that began in 1976. To date, there have been more than 1.5 million incident reports filed.
According to NASA, its ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System) “receives, processes and analyzes voluntarily submitted incident reports from pilots, air traffic controllers, dispatchers, cabin crew, maintenance technicians, and others. Reports submitted to ASRS may describe both unsafe occurrences and hazardous situations.”
Pilots or others reporting are provided immunity against actions, including penalties or certificate actions for a safety or regulation violation incident, once every five years. The goal is to improve aviation safety.
The recent dates of these incidents mean they are not yet accessible in the reporting system. Anyone can search the NASA ASRS database for aviation incidents.
Airline pilots and FAA under pressure.
There aren’t enough airline pilots, to begin with. And with so many approaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, the problem is getting worse. By one analysis, some 10k pilots have left the industry since Covid. There is a need to fill up to 18k airline pilot positions annually, yet FAA has been issuing just half that number of pilot licenses. Southwest Airlines, for example, is reported to be parking up to 45 planes a day due to the lack of pilots to operate them.
Pilot and regular commenter Richard said about FAA air traffic controllers: “I’m finding that air traffic controllers are feeling stressed by increased air traffic; you can hear it in their voices. So I’m not surprised by the increase in air incidents and surprised that we aren’t seeing more of them. Also it would be interesting to know how many senior air traffic controllers retired during the pandemic.”
We’d love to hear from others involved in Hawaii aviation.