NTSB investigation pinpoints human error in United Airlines near-disaster.

Key Points:

  • The Boeing 777's near-disastrous descent was attributed to miscommunication between the two pilots during takeoff.

  • Following the incident, United Airlines adjusted its operations training and initiated an awareness campaign.

  • The plane fell from 2,100 feet to 748 feet above the Pacific Ocean shortly after takeoff.

WASHINGTON D.C. — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has identified human error as the cause behind the alarming plunge of a United Airlines flight in Dec. 2022. The Boeing 777 dropped dramatically after departing from Hawaii, nearly reaching the Pacific Ocean.

According to the NTSB's findings, miscommunication about the “captain’s desired flap setting” during takeoff led to the flight crew's inability to properly manage the vertical flightpath, airspeed, and pitch altitude. Just a minute after takeoff in inclement weather, United flight 1722 descended from an altitude of 2,100 feet to a mere 748 feet above the sea.

Delving into the events within the cockpit, the report outlined the captain's actions during the early phases of the flight and the ensuing confusion. As part of the takeoff procedure, wing flaps were set at a 20-degree angle and were meant to be gradually retracted in flight. The captain, managing the initial takeoff manually, made a call to reduce the flap setting. However, a misunderstanding occurred. The first officer believed he heard "flaps 15" instead of the intended "flaps 5."

This lapse in communication resulted in turmoil in the cockpit. The first officer recounted his awareness of the captain's struggles with airspeed control. The situation intensified as the plane's ground proximity warning system began sounding alarms. In response, the first officer urgently advised the captain to pull the aircraft up.

Successfully averting potential disaster, the pilots managed to stabilize the plane at 748 feet above the ocean. Following this narrow escape, the flight continued smoothly to San Francisco, with the captain engaging the autopilot.

United Airlines has proactively addressed the incident. The airline revised its operations training modules and rolled out an awareness initiative emphasizing flight path management at their training center, a company spokesperson said. 

Emphasizing their commitment to safety, United stated, "Drawing from the lessons of this incident, we aim to inform and train all United pilots. This safety incident was self-reported by our pilots, and we have fully cooperated with the independent inquiry to bolster safety across the aviation sector."