Boeing 737 Ditches off the Coast of Hawaiian Island
On the 2nd of July 2021, a cargo aircraft ditched in the Pacific near the Hawaiian island of Oahu after experiencing trouble in both engines.
The aircraft was a forty-six year old Boeing 737-275C(A) (where apparently the C stands for “cargo/pax Combi” and the A stands for Advanced, with improved range over the original 737-200), registration N810TA, owned by Rhoades Aviation. That night, it was operating as Transair flight 810. Transair is one of Hawaii’s largest air cargo carriers and flies to all Hawaiian island destinations.
It’s not clear what caused the initial failure but there are already a number of interesting aspects to this case.
You can listen to the interactions between the crew and ATC on LiveATC or watch the VASAviation version which syncs the conversation with map references.
Transair flight 810 was a cargo flight with two flight crew on board. They departed Honolulu International Airport for a flight to Maui at 01:33 local time. Honolulu Tower cleared the flight to 13,000 feet but the Boeing was only around 2,100 feet and the flight crew said that they were going to have to return. The Tower controller acknowledged the call and asked them to resume own navigation, followed by clearing them to land.
At this point the Boeing was heading out to sea in the dark; they were offered an immediate return to the airfield. The flight crew explained that they had lost an engine and wished to go over the relevant checklists first in order to prepare for landing.
The Boeing 737 should be controllable on one engine and so this was a prudent response in the first instance, allowing them to ensure that the aircraft is safe and configured for the emergency landing back at Honolulu.
Listening to the ATC interactions on LiveATC, it’s noticeable that the controller is regularly stepping over the aircraft’s transmissions leading some to consider that she may not have understood the situation. In the US, it is still typical simply to state that you are declaring an emergency, rather than state Mayday three times. It seems to me that the controller understood the situation but perhaps didn’t quite grasp that it might be a bit hectic in the cockpit.
The flight crew reported that they were turning back but were still not quite ready to land yet and that they did not have the airport in sight. When asked if they wanted vectors, the crew member explained that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.
Rhoades Express 810, we’ve lost the number 1 engine and we’re coming straight to the airport. We’re going to need the fire department, if they can. We’re going to lose the other engine too; it’s running very hot. Speed is, um, we’re pretty low on speed. That doesn’t look good out here. You might want to let the [unintelligible]. We don’t have any hazmat (hazardous material in the cargo) and fuel is about two hours of fuel.
The controller asked again if they had the airport in sight, to which another voice, probably the pilot flying, snapped back “negative”. She warned them that they had triggered the low altitude alert and asked if they were were able to climb at all.
“No, negative,” said the same clipped voice. The controller cleared them to land on any runway.
The tension showed when he replied that he needed a heading. The controller gave them a heading and said that the “trucks are rolling,” that is, the fire engines were on their way to the runway.
“You want to let the Coast Guard know as well,” said the first voice. They already knew they might not make it there.
“You need to let the Coast Guard know. We can’t maintain altitude.”
The controller quickly confirmed that the Coast Guard were on their way.
The voice remained calm and collected. “Thank you very much, appreciate it.”
The controller repeated that if they could make it to the airport, they were clear to land on any runway and then asked if perhaps they would like Kalaeloa, an airfield on the coast.
The stressed voice broke in: “We’d like the closest airport runway, please.”
At that point, Kalaeloa airport was three miles north-north-west of the aircraft. The controller told them to look at their 9 to 10 o’clock, as they would need to do a hard left turn to make the closer airport. When she didn’t receive a response, she repeated that the airport was three miles northwest of them. The flightcrew asked for a new heading, which could have been in the call but it is clear from the controller’s voice that she was still working it out. Everyone was under an extremely high workload. Usually in an emergency, the controller will deal only with the emergency and additional staff will offer support, looking at options and contacting emergency services so that she can focus on talking to the flight crew. Listening to ATCLive, I can’t shake the feeling that the controller was on her own.
She contacted the flight crew again to say that the lights at Kalaeloa may be pilot controlled and gave them the frequency. They cannot land at an airport with no lights in the middle of the night so this is a real problem; one more thing to add to the workload.
It didn’t matter, as it was already too late. There was no response.
The controller called again with no response. Shortly after that, the audio shifts to another person complaining that he was trying to call her on ground.
“Uh yeah, no, I was kinda busy.”
He asked for a status update on the aircraft and the emotion in her voice was heartbreakingly clear. She told him that they went down in the water about 2 miles southeast of Kalaeloa, which means they made it one mile before ditching.
The aircraft took substantial damage in the impact with the water and began to sink almost immediately. The weather at the time was winds at 17 miles per hour and seas up to 5 feet.
The US Coast Guard and the Honolulu fire Department responded immediately and broadcast information to all mariners to be on the lookout. They diverted the Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Gerczak (WPC 1126) to the area and launched a Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Barbers Point, an HC-130 (extended range) Hercules and the Station Honolulu Response Boat.
It took forty-five minutes to locate the debris field in the water, which was about a mile wide and four miles off of the coast. The Dolphin helicopter reported to ATC that they had found the wreckage.
We do have an aircraft in the water. We’re currently overhead the debris field… we have zero-two souls in sight in the water.
The response from the Tower was the same voice: the same controller was still on duty:
OK, so you have both guys–both souls in sight?
One pilot was clinging to the tip of the Boeing 737’s tail which was slowly sinking. The other was in the water, clinging to floating packages.
As the tail began to dip under the surface, the helicopter was able to hoist the pilot holding onto the tail into the aircraft. He was exhausted and non-responsive and taken directly to the hospital into intensive care.
The second pilot was pulled aboard a Honolulu Fire Department boat by a rescue swimmer. He was also taken to the hospital with a head injury and multiple lacerations.
This video by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tori Barrett of the U.S. Coast Guard District 14 Hawaii Pacific shows the rescue.
Both pilots have recovered and have been released from the hospital.
Honolulu News have posted two ten-minute YouTube videos of interviews with the US Coast Guard crew who rescued the pilots: Part 1 and Part 2.
— USCG Hawaii Pacific (@USCGHawaiiPac) July 3, 2021
The NTSB began their investigation immediately with two team members already on location on Friday and the remaining eight arriving Saturday afternoon. They recovered a small amount of floating debris; however, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders are believed to be on the ocean floor.
The investigators are conducting a sonar scan of the wreckage in water ranging from 150 to 300 feet deep, hoping to determine the best way to recover the recorders and, if possible, how to savage the wreckage. Apparently, the wreckage has come to rest somewhat precariously on an undersea ledge. If it slides off and drops into deeper water, the recorders will likely not be recoverable.
In the meantime, they are conducting interviews with the pilots, the air traffic controller and Transair maintenance employees. Pollution responders are also on the scene; so far they believe that the pollution from the impact is containable.
There is a limited number of reasons for both engines to fail and it is clear that faulty maintenance is a prime suspect. Other possible reasons include contaminated fuel and pilot error, such as the crash at Kegworth where the pilots shut down the wrong (undamaged) engine.
Rhoades Aviation (flying as Transair) had five Boeing 737s before the loss of N810TA. They have grounded their four remaining 737s pending further information as to the engine failures, leaving them with just a small turboprop to continue operations.
Intriguingly, I have seen references on a few aviation forums describing this as the first successful ditching of a commercial jetliner in the open ocean. Lots of qualifiers there but it does very much highlight the question from our previous discussion on ditching: how do we define successful? I did notice that the Air Safe Jet Airliner Ditching Events has already included Transair flight N810TA to their list, bringing their events to a total of five. I really must find the time to get my own list together!
Overall, a rather exceptional happy ending to a nightmare situation and it’s amazing to hear that the pilots are recovering quickly. The NTSB expects to release a preliminary report within a few weeks.