After an SFO-bound United flight from Maui last December took a steep, terrifying dive toward the ocean about a minute after takeoff, the feds said they would be investigating, and the results of that investigation are now in.
We first learned about the unusual incident in February, after an aviation blog picked up the story from a filing made to the FAA by the pilots — as part of the airline's voluntary safety reporting program. Shortly after takeoff from Maui during stormy weather, as United flight 1722 reached 2,200 feet, the plane took a sudden, abrupt nosedive toward the ocean, dropping at a stomch-turning 8,600 feet per minute.
The plane reportedly came within 748 feet of the ocean's surface before it pulled out of the dive — and while the rest of the flight proceeded normally, passengers and flight attendants were left wondering what had just happened.
"It happened so fast that I thought, 'Could this be it?'" said retired UC Berkeley professor Kenneth Raymond, who was on the flight. As the 81-year-old told the Chronicle, "It was a bigger drop than I have ever experienced on an airplane."
Other passengers described screams throughout the cabin during the eight- to ten-second dive.
At the time, the captain reportedly got on the intercom and told the 271 passengers, "You probably felt some extra [G-force] just then. It’s nothing to be alarmed about.”
Now, as CNN reports, the National Transportation Safety Board has published a report on the incident, which concludes that it occurred as a result of pilot error. A miscommunication heard by the first officer led to "the flight crew’s failure to manage the airplane’s vertical flightpath."
According to the report, just after takeoff, the captain ordered that the 777's flap extension be reduced to a level "5," but the first officer heard "15," and that adjustment led to the nosedive. The captain then worried about damaging the flaps and was apparently trying to manage the descent, but things went a bit awry and cockpit alarms started going off.
"Both pilots recalled hearing the initial warnings from the ground proximity warning system (GPWS), and the first officer recalled announcing ‘pull up pull up’ along with those initial GPWS warnings," the report says.
United Airlines said in a statement Friday that it was "drawing on the lessons learned from this flight to inform the training of all United pilots." And the report indicates that United has "issued an awareness campaign about flight path management at their training center."
Photo: Arkin Si