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NTSB says miscommunication caused flight to approach ocean's surface

The National Transportation Safety Board said the crew failed in managing the aircraft's vertical path, nose direction and airspeed.
United Airlines airplane takes off over a plane on the runway.
Posted at 10:22 PM, Aug 10, 2023

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said in a final report on Thursday that miscommunication was to blame for a frightening incident with a United flight that caused it to dip dangerously close to the ocean's surface. 

The moment happened shortly after takeoff when the flight, as the flight ascended during heavy rain from Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui in December. As the flight gained altitude it suddenly dropped to about 748 feet above the ocean's surface.  

The NTSB said the captain asked the co-pilot to reset the wing flaps, but the co-pilot allegedly heard the number "15" in stead of "five," as a measurement for the adjustment. 

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The co-pilot is documented as telling federal investigators that they, "knew the captain was having difficulty with airspeed control." The first officer said, "I couldn’t be certain what the captain was dealing with."

The move contributed to causing the plane's nose to pitch down, and the co-pilot testified that they saw the plane break through cloud cover. 

As the plane's ground proximity warning system sounded an alarm, the co-pilot said, "I announced, 'Pull up, pull up, pull up, pull up' many times."

The Boeing 777 plunged from more than 2,200 feet to more than 1,400 feet towards the Pacific Ocean's surface, and then recovered. 271 passengers and 10 crew members were on board. 

After the recovery, the chief flight attendant told the cockpit crew “everyone was OK," and the plane continued on to San Francisco. 

The pilots are still flying with United. 

That same day a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix hit strong turbulence, injuring 36 people, some seriously, as the plane made its approach to Honolulu.