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United flight’s plunge toward the ocean was caused by pilot error, NTSB says

A 2022 incident where a United Airlines flight came within 748 feet of crashing into the Pacific Ocean was caused by pilot error, federal investigators say.

In a just-published final report, the National Transportation Safety Board pins the cause of United Airlines flight 1722’s dive on “the flight crew’s failure to manage the airplane’s vertical flightpath” after an apparent “miscommunication” between the two pilots over the position of the plane’s wing flaps.

The incident took place about one minute after the Boeing 777 departed Hawaii’s Kahului Airport in heavy rain and turbulence on December 18, the NTSB said. The flight with 271 passengers on board continued on to its destination San Francisco without further issue, investigators said.

The NTSB said statements from the flight crew revealed confusion over the setting of the 777’s flaps, which are typically extended for takeoff and retracted incrementally during climb out.

“When the airplane reached the acceleration altitude, the captain reduced the pitch attitude slightly and called for the flap setting to be reduced to flaps 5,” the NTSB said in its report. “According to the first officer, he thought that he heard the captain announce flaps 15.”

The report says the captain, who was flying the airplane at an altitude of 2,100 feet (640 meters), became concerned about damaging the still-extended flaps and started descending and decelerating until cockpit alarms sounded.

‘Pull up pull up’

“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 NTSB report said.

The report says that United Airlines has changed its training procedures and “issued an awareness campaign about flight path management at their training center.”

After the incident first came to light earlier this year, United said it had conducted an investigation with the FAA and the pilots union “that ultimately resulted in the pilots receiving additional training.”

United is “drawing on the lessons learned from this flight to inform the training of all United pilots,” the airline said in a statement on Thursday.

“Our pilots voluntarily reported this event and United fully cooperated with the independent investigation so that insights could be used to enhance the safety of the entire industry.”

United said both pilots received additional training and continue to fly for the airline.

‘Screams on the plane’

“It felt like you were climbing to the top of a roller coaster. It was at that point,” Williams said. “There were a number of screams on the plane. Everybody knew that something was out of the ordinary, or at least that this was not normal.”

Williams and his family were sitting near the back of the plane when the Boeing 777 made the terrifying plunge shortly after taking off from Kahului Airport in Hawaii.

He said the plane then went into a “dramatic, nose-down” dive for about eight to 10 seconds before it climbed steeply again and resumed normal flight.

The experience was harrowing.

“When the plane started to nosedive, multiple screams are being let out, at that point,” Williams said.

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