Boeing 737 Ditches off the Coast of Hawaiian Island

9 Jul 21 9 Comments

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.

N810TA at Tainan Airport as photographed by li cheng TSAI

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.

N810TA flight path on flightradar24

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?

They did.

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.

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.

9 Comments

  • First impression (can be wrong, all depends on further information): the pilots did a decent job, but the controller seemed out of her depth.
    Successful ditching? What is the definition? If this had been a passenger aircraft and only the pilots had survived, would it still be regarded as “successful”?
    A bit like the old joke: What is the definition of a good landing? Answer: Any landing you can walk away from.
    But it is heartening to read that the pilots survived and are already recovering.

    • I had the same thought; if there had been passengers on the flight then they would have died. So no fatalities seems like a marker of success but in this case, it was because there were only two on board. And they were damn lucky — had the coast guard taken a little bit longer or if the accident had happened in November, I think it is clear that the pilot who was already unresponsive from exhaustion would not have survived and the other was in the water…

  • I heard this was the first ditching of a jet airliner at night with no fatalities.

    I suppose that’s pretty specific, but my Google-fu is not masterful enough to reveal if it’s true.

    • Fantastic that they made it out alive! Lots of simultaneous transmissions, shouldn’t they be saying “over” at the end?

      • I was taught that after the first call introducing myself, I should end my call with my call-sign (well, the shortened version thereof), thus everything I say is useful for the controller but there’s also a signal that I’ve finished. However, in a busy traffic situation, I’ve even seen that dispensed with.

  • Same comment: A jet airliner, but (fortunately) with only two pilots on board.
    In a busy environment the transmissions come quick. The use of terminology like “over” has been deemed superfluous and too time-consuming for decades, even in Europe where aviation R/T has been traditionally more formal than in the USA.
    The controller did not seem to have acquired the skills that most pilots adopt: to react quickly and correctly to transmit as soon as the previous transmission has ended. She kept cutting in on transmissions from an aircraft that had declared an emergency.
    Of course, there is nothing in this blog to tell us under what pressure she was. Normally an ATC controller will hand all other traffic to a colleague, if possible assign another frequency to the emergency – or clear the frequency from regular traffic. But did she have that option?
    It seems that she had also been expected to work the ground frequency. In which case she should have used a free moment to give a blind transmission such as: “All aircraft on this frequency stand by, emergency in progress”, or something to that extent.
    Again, my first impression is that the flight crew did a good job. But of course, with Sylvia’s mention of Kegworth in mind, has the last word been spoken yet?

    • I noticed that complaint from a plane on the ground at the end of the recording. Honolulu is a substantial airport: 2 sets of parallel runways, over 20 million passengers/year for the last 30 years (except during the Shrub drepression and the pandemic). Even after midnight, I’d expect them to have separate people for ground and air control, or at least to have more than one person on active duty (i.e., 3 or more in the tower so one can take a break — or an emergency buzzer to call someone back from break — and at least one area controller who the tower could ask to fend off nearby aircraft); is the dual assignment we hear normal for 3rd-shift work?

      wrt the overlapped transmissions: is it clear those were all the controller, rather than T2? All I get out of the recording is a buzzy tone.

      • The transmissions that jumped out at me are where the accident aircraft is finishing a call and the controller starts one. There’s a brief buzz and then she speaks or continues to speak. The buzz is the overlap. It’s most noticeable in the beginning when everyone is still trying to work out what is going on.

  • Re Chip’s comment: he describes Honolulu as being “a substantial airport”. From this blog I am getting the impression that there was only one ATC controller on duty, handling both the tower- and ground frequency. It is certainly not usual for such an important airport to have all traffic handled by one controller, and obviously without a second controller to assist if there is an increase in workload. No toilet break, no opportunity to grab a cup of coffee? No wonder she got overloaded when this emergency occurred. Again, we do not have the details but it would seem that the airport management were trying to save money by cutting down on essential services during periods of time that were deemed to be quiet..
    If this line of thought is true, then I wonder what the FAA will have to say about this penny pinching, which appears to have caused ATC understaffing during an emergency situation.
    I put in a lot of caveats because I am only guessing at this time.

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