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‘Too low! Too low!’ Pilot error blamed for Air Niugini jet ditching

Weno Island air crash
Air Niugini Boeing 737-800  sinks in the lagoon at Weno Island (AFP - Zach Niezgodski)


PORT MORESBY – An official crash investigation has found that pilot error led to an aircraft ditching, forcing passengers and crew to swim for their lives at Weno Island in Micronesia last year.

One man died and nine other passengers were injured when the Air Niugini Boeing 737-800 attempted to land, but ended up skimming into a lagoon before sinking.

A Papua New Guinea Accident Investigation Commission report into the 28 September crash found the pilot and co-pilot ignored numerous automated warnings while approaching the runway.

It said the pair missed ‘pull up’ warning lights and continued the landing attempt at Chuuk International Airport, even after bad weather made them lose sight of the runway.

"Both pilots were fixated on cues associated with control inputs for the landing approach, and subsequently were not situationally aware," chief commissioner Hubert Namani said.

A transcript revealed the dramatic final seconds in the cockpit before the crash.

"(The) co-pilot called rapidly with high intonation: 'Too low! We're too low! We're too low! We're too low!" it said.

After the crash, with the plane half-submerged in the lagoon, 12 crew members and 34 passengers scrambled off the aircraft into the water.

They were picked up by a flotilla of small boats operated by locals and US Navy divers who happened to be in the area.

The report said the man who died was not wearing a seatbelt and suffered blunt trauma injuries to his head, which probably killed him minutes after the crash.

It said Air Niugini had agreed to a number of changes, including increased training for crews flying to Chuuk and tighter restrictions on landing requirements at the airport.


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Chris Overland

I have watched many episodes of a TV show called Air Crash Investigations, which analyses different crashes from all over the world.

I have also spent literally thousands of hours on my own flight simulator, flying numerous different types of both vintage and modern aircraft (not always well or successfully!).

I have also successfully "flown" a 737 in a full scale commercial flight simulator of the type used to train pilots.

While obviously not an expert aviator, I am pretty well informed about the process of flying modern jet aircraft and, in general terms, how their systems work.

It would be fair to say that a modern jet can be flown pretty much by the numbers, mostly using the autopilot to fly from radio beacon to radio beacon. Landing even in very bad weather is made comparatively simple using the Instrument Landing System.

There are a host of built in safety devices which can, for example, detect and take evasive action if two aircraft are on a collision course or give warning if the aircraft is coming too close to the ground. The latter system is called the Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS).

Believe me, when the TAWS goes off it is both loud and persistent. A voice says in an urgent tone "Terrain! Terrain! Pull Up! Pull Up!" or "Too low! Too Low! Pull Up! Pull Up!" and goes on doing so until the pilot actually does something.

You would therefore wonder how on earth a pilot could apparently not hear such warnings but, as Air Crash Investigations all over the world have repeated demonstrated, it is sometimes is ignored, usually with catastrophic results.

The usual explanation for this is that the pilots become fixated upon something else that they are doing like, for example, trying to solve another problem or being otherwise distracted.

Fixation is a cause of many problems outside of aviation, such as when car drivers insist upon reading text messages rather than watching the road or pedestrians do the same and blunder into telephone poles or other people or even manage to fall into water bodies of some sort..

This crash is a classic example of this all too human tendency.

Even quite skilful pilots can and have fallen victim to this problem, so the hapless Air PNG pilots are no orphans.

My guess is that the pilots concerned will not be getting into the cockpit of a jet aircraft anytime soon or maybe never again.

Frankly, you could not be confident about their ability to handle anything out of the ordinary, even after further training.

Flying is extremely safe. However, from a risk analysis perspective, it is a low risk, high consequence type of activity. In other words, any serious system failures or stuff ups by pilots can all too easily result in utter disaster.

The technology in modern jets is astoundingly good but, in a crisis situation, it is still the pilots who must instinctively know what to do to avert disaster.

In this case, they didn't know what to do and even their plane could not save them or their unfortunate passengers.

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