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What went wrong with Southwest flight 4069?

Something went seriously wrong last week when Southwest Airlines flight 4069 was en route from Las Vegas to Oklahoma City. Shortly after midnight, the plane was approaching its destination when it began sharply descending far sooner than it should have. It quickly dropped to barely 500 feet above a residential neighborhood, setting off low altitude alarms and putting a scare into both passengers and local residents. The air traffic control tower began contacting the pilots to make inquiries. The pilots were able to climb back up to a higher altitude and eventually landed safely, but they missed their first attempt at the runway. Now, several days later, the FAA still can't explain what, if anything went wrong. Just for the record, the plane was yet another Boeing 737. 

From the NY Post:

A Southwest Airlines commercial plane inexplicably dived while landing in Oklahoma City, flying less than 500 feet over a residential neighborhood — setting off altitude alarms and frightening residents.

The dangerously low flight of Southwest Airlines flight 4069 from Las Vegas was recorded by transponders, and caught to notice of air traffic controllers.

Shortly after midnight, the Boeing 737-800 passed by Yukon High School after it was cleared to land at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoman reported.

“Southwest 4069, low altitude alert,” an air traffic controller warned. “You good out there?”

Some residents of the neighborhood that was buzzed took to social media to report the frightening incident. One man described how loud the plane's engines sounded and said he had been afraid that it might hit his house. A 737 running at full speed makes a lot of noise, so if it passes by at only 500 feet, that would no doubt be a cause for alarm.

The question is, how did this happen? It doesn't appear to have been a case of aberrant air conditions or turbulence. The airline isn't reporting any sort of damage or mechanical failure that might have caused the descent. At the top of the linked article, you can listen to the recording of the conversation between the cockpit and the air traffic control tower. The tower tried to contact the flight twice before receiving a response, reporting a low altitude alarm and asking the pilots if they were okay. When the pilot does respond, he sounds almost casual and says that they plan to "go around again." He makes no mention of the alarm or his low altitude. He negotiates with the tower as he climbs back to 2,000 feet and receives clearance to circle the airport once before attempting to land.

I'm just guessing here, of course, but could the flight crew have fallen asleep in the cockpit and lost situational awareness? Could that be why the control tower had to try contacting them twice before they received a response? They were able to climb back up to 2,000 feet and level off without any issues, so it doesn't seem to have been any type of mechanical failure. This was a redeye flight and it was past midnight when they reached Oklahoma City, so it might be understandable if the crew was tired, but that was obviously a very dangerous situation. If you're that tired, you shouldn't be flying. 

It's also curious how the flight control tower operator didn't say much of anything after the initial inquiry. If you have a Boeing 737-800 down at 500 feet and it's not over or even near a runway, not to mention having alarms going off, that should be of significant concern to the tower. Yet after asking, "Are you okay," the controller immediately began providing altitude and approach instructions. Perhaps that's the sort of thing that would only be discussed in a post-flight debriefing, but I would have thought that they would at least want to ensure the plane was operating properly before clearing them to land.

I suppose we'll have to chalk this incident up as one more bit of weirdness in the skies that thankfully didn't result in any injuries. It doesn't sound as if this one can be blamed on any ongoing safety issues with Boeing's planes. But a full investigation and interviews with the pilots should be in order to ensure this doesn't happen again. Next time we might not be so lucky.

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