NTSB releases underwater drone images of Hawaii jet crash site

If you keep an eye on the news, you may be aware that a transport jet recently went down off of Hawaii. The two pilots on board were injured but rescued. And now, a Remotely Operated Vehicle — the underwater equivalent of a drone — has been used to examine the site, which is too deep for all but the most specialized divers wearing pressure suits.

On July 2, Transair Flight 810 departed from Honolulu’s international airport, bound for a short hop to the neighboring island of Maui. The modified Boeing 737-200 (a freighter conversion) had a crew of two and took off at 1:33 AM local time. Just nine minutes after takeoff and at about 2,100 feet, however, the pilots reported trouble: One of the two Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines had stopped working.

And then things got worse.

Second engine fails

The pilots informed Air Traffic Control of the problem, and the tower offered an immediate runway if the pilots wanted to return to land. They instead opted to go through a checklist, presumably to see if they could restart the engine. At 1:46 AM, the pilot reported the second engine had overheated. They turned the aircraft to head for the closest available runway.

But with no power, the aircraft was too far away and losing altitude too quickly. It crashed into the ocean about two miles (3.2 km) from Kalaeloa Airport.

A Coast Guard Rescue

A US Coast Guard dispatched a Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin chopper and an HC-130 Hercules airplane. , along with an Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Boat (ARFF) was also dispatched in the hope the pilots could be rescued. And, fortunately – despite a debris field slowing down the ARFF – they were able to accomplish this mission. One pilot was rescued by the boat, while the USCG chopper picked up the second, about an hour after the incident. The Wikipedia Entry for the crash states: “one survivor was on the vertical tail of the aircraft (the only part of the aircraft that could still be seen floating above the waves) while a second one was in the water floating on a bed of cargo soaked in jet fuel…”

Both pilots were seriously injured.

This night-vision photo, found on the Wikipedia entry for the crash, shows one of the pilots being in the middle of being lifted to safety:

The image within the red circle is one of the pilots, mid-rescue. USCG image

Both pilots were hospitalized – one in critical condition and the other in serious condition. Thankfully, they both recovered to were released within a few days.

Black Box

In any incident like this, the National Transportation Safety Board gets involved immediately. And one of its highest priorities is to recover the Flight Data Recorder, more commonly referred to as the Black Box (even though they’re orange).

But there was a problem: The plane had gone down in water some 420 feet (130 meters) deep. Side-scan sonar was initially used to locate the jet, which had broken apart. And then, the NTSB requested assistance from Sea Engineering Inc., which has two different Remotely Operated Vehicles.

Fuselage snapped

Sea Engineering Inc. acquired these images using a Seamoor Chinook Inspection ROV. It was able to acquire these images, which the NTSB released. They showed that the nose of the jet broke off forward of the wing. The wings remained attached though the tail also broke off (luckily for one of the two pilots).

Let’s get to the images the NTSB released.

The front

NTSB Images captured by Sea Engineering, Inc.

The back

NTSB Images captured by Sea Engineering, Inc.

The NTSB still has plans to recover the Flight Data Recorder.

What caused this?

That will be for the NTSB to determine. And in an early news release, the agency indicates it will once again cast a very wide net to examine all possible factors that may have contributed to the accident.

The pilots in this incident, despite their injuries, are very fortunate. And it’s fortunate, too, that we have tools like ROVs to take on tasks that would put human beings at risk.

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