Those were the pilot’s words shortly before the B737-200 crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean off Oahu, near Honolulu, in the very early hours of Friday, 02JUL21. Both pilots of Transair’s flight T4810 were rescued roughly an hour after the aircraft came down and broke apart on the water.
Almost 46 years after its first flight on 23JUL75, the B737-200 bearing the registration N810TA made its last. It was one of 5 such aircraft in the Transair fleet operated by Rhoades Aviation, all of which are between 37 and 47 years old. Transair is one of Hawaii’s largest interisland cargo operators, and was founded in 1982. The aircraft in question had been in constant operation, running 5-8 twenty to thirty-minute flights per day on a daily basis in the run-up to 02JUL21.
The freighter took off from runway 08R at Honolulu-Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, at 01:33 hours local time, destined for the island of Maui. 9 minutes into the flight, the crew reported that the Pratt & Whitney JT8D Engine One had failed, and that they would be turning back. Just four minutes later and unable to gain or even maintain altitude, they signaled in that the second engine had over-heated and that they would be having to ditch the aircraft. The tower vectored the crew to the nearest airport, Kalaeloa, just 3 miles to their left, but this was neither visible to the crew in the darkness of the night, nor did it prove attainable. Flight T4810 ditched at 01:45, disappearing from the tower’s radar screen. Prior to the ditching, the pilot confirmed that there were two souls on board and no hazardous material, and requested that the fire department be present at landing. He soon added the request to also alert the Coast Guards be alerted.
The plane broke apart upon hitting the water. Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Honolulu Fire Department were involved in the sea rescue of the two pilots. It took roughly an hour before the pilots, aged 50 and 58, were located, clinging to cargo and plane parts to stay afloat in 46 meter depth of water in the dark. Both were seriously injured and in a critical condition, with lacerations and one with a head injury. The older pilot who had been found holding on to the tail of the aircraft, had been driven to the point of exhaustion where he was no longer able to communicate, and where the U.S. Coast Guard rescue crew who managed to lift him onto a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter at 02:57, is convinced that a minute or two longer, they may not have been able to locate him. The other pilot, holding on to packages, was located at 02:51 and brought to safety by the Honolulu Fire Department rescue boat. Meanwhile, both pilots are in a stable condition. The Coast Guard flew over the crash site off Oahu at the light of dawn, to evaluate for pollution from the debris and fuel in the water.
For an aircraft to suffer the failure of both engines, is extremely rare. The fact that it was functioning alone, is not reason enough for the second engine to have over-heated, given that twin-engine planes are designed to perform on one engine should the other give out. A team of ten National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inspectors and the FAA are investigating how the failure came about. The NTSB team is made up of specialists in air traffic control, systems, maintenance records, human performance, operations, and powerplants & structures/wreckage recovery. While over on Social Media, people were quick to point to the age of the plane as the cause, as long as it is correctly maintained, this should not be an issue. According to Cirium, around 60 737-200 freighters are still in active service. So, was it maintenance? Incorrect handling? Fuel-related? Were unconfirmed reports of engines previously overheating true? Could the incident have been prevented? The investigations will tell.
Belly-landings on water are incredibly different under the best circumstances, and rarely successful. The notorious Hudson River landing in 2009 is the most prominent positive outcome to date. “This crew would have been intimately familiar with the area for a ditching, but it was in the middle of the night,” a Twitter user stated with regard to the Transair pilots. As this landing had to take place in the dark, the risk of failure was massively increased. That both pilots survived is token to their skill in bringing the plane down.
Pointing the finger
Some mainstream media and many Social Media keyboard experts were keen to draw links to the Boeing MAX, despite the two aircraft being substantially different. Nevertheless, Boeing – which incidentally has a 91% global market share in all freighters – saw a 2.5% drop in share prices that day. Boeing said in a statement: “We are aware of the reports out of Honolulu, Hawaii and are closely monitoring the situation. We are in contact with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and are working to gather more information.” There is no news to date of the other Transair 737-200s being grounded, nor has the company issued a statement.
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