The NTSB issued its preliminary report on the HA 35 flight turbulence accident that occurred on December 18, 2022. The Hawaiian Airlines flight was approaching Hawaii after leaving Phoenix, when it hit severe turbulence, injuring at least 25 persons (passengers and flight attendants), of which 6 were seriously injured.

The report provides more information than previously revealed but remarkably leaves many questions unanswered. An analysis of the short report is revealing for what it does say, but even more so for what it does not say.

The report states that at the time of the accident, the first officer was the flying pilot (one at the controls) flying the aircraft, and the captain was the monitoring pilot. The captain reported that they were flying in clear sky at 40,000 feet and were 2-3000 feet above a lower cloud layer.  The aircraft weather radar was set to “all” with no returns displayed.

The captain claims a cloud shot up vertically like a smoke plume in front of the airplane in a matter of seconds, but they could not avoid it. He called the lead flight attendant to inform her that they may have turbulence, but within 1 to 3 seconds after that, they flew into severe turbulence.

The Honolulu area weather was significant.

KZAK SIGMET WHISKEY 1 VALID 182300/190300 PHFO- OAKLAND OCEANIC FIR SEV TURB FCST WI N2615 W16000 – N2445 W15815 – N2115 W15945 – N1830 W16715 – N1945 W16945 – N2300 W17100 – N2615 W16000. FL250/380. MOV ESE 10KT. INTSF. WSPA11 PHFO 190031 SIGPAX.

SIGMET for the area around the incident.

The NTSB report states that an occluded frontal system with a related upper-level trough was moving through the islands. The NTSB preliminary report also states: “Satellite and weather radar imagery, and lightning data showed strong cells in the vicinity of the flight.”  The US National Weather Service had issued a current SIGMET (significant meteorology warning) for embedded thunderstorms with tops reaching 38,000 feet. 

An occluded front is a weather front formed when a cold front overtakes a warm front near a cyclonic area, causing the warm air to separate from the cyclone, commonly resulting in a variety of adverse weather conditions. An upper-level trough is an elongated area of low air pressure located at altitude and not near the surface. It is commonly associated with adverse wind conditions vertically and horizontally.

The first question is: if there were clouds shooting up vertically directly in the flight path of HA 35 with a related significant and heavy weather system, strong enough for a SIGMET, with “strong cells” near the aircraft, how is that not reflected on the on-board weather radar that is set to “all”? In other words, is it consistent for the captain to report no weather returns on the radar display when there was so much weather activity, including thunderstorms, around the aircraft?

ALG believes that there must have been an earlier indication to the crew, even if contradicted by what the captain claims was displayed by the weather radar. Unfortunately, and from a factual corroboration standpoint, the radar information reflected on the weather radar display to the pilots was not recorded because it is not part of the flight data recording system. Thus, whatever the captain says was on the display cannot be independently confirmed.  

Visualized SIGMET. HA35 flew approximately through the center of it on its approach to Honolulu.

The second question is whether the pilots in fact received the SIGMET information, and when and by what method they received it. 

The NTSB perhaps assumes, but does not tell us how, or importantly when, the pilots first received this very important information.  If they did have it before the aircraft flew into turbulence, what did the pilots do with the information? Obviously, nothing. But what could or should they have done? Depending on the facts, perhaps they should have become more vigilant about the situation, slowed the aircraft down and descended, changed course, etc.  It all depends upon all of the information known, including what they saw outside.  Unfortunately, the public is not given this information.

Severe Turbulence around Hawaii

The report also reports that at the time there were also no PIREPs (pilot reports) of “severe turbulence.”

Worthy of comment is the NTSB observation that there no other pilot reports of “severe” turbulence. Severe turbulence is defined by the FAA as turbulence that causes large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude. It usually causes large variations in indicated airspeed. This may cause the aircraft may be momentarily out of control. It is incredibly rare that aircraft fly into such conditions.

What the NTSB avoids mentioning is if their investigation found any reports of adverse weather and/or turbulence, including light or moderate turbulence. We do know that a SIGMET for severe turbulence was in place on the west side of the islands and was progressing eastward as the flight approached Honolulu. As information becomes available to ALG, we will be taking a very close look at who reported what weather conditions and when on the morning of December 18 related to HA35, and what was reported to the pilots and when.  We suspect that no “severe” turbulence is not the full story.

What about the seatbelt light?

Another silent element of the report is that it does not address the seatbelt light issue, nor any issues related to passenger seatbelts. Not surprisingly, right after the accident, Hawaiian Airlines chose immediately influence media reports of the accident by claiming that the seatbelt lights were on, obviously suggesting that those passengers who were injured were not wearing their seatbelts and thus not following passenger seat belt protocol.  But the NTSB preliminary report is strangely silent on this, not supporting or denying it. Yet, this is a dangerous area for Hawaiian Airlines to venture into, especially if there is more to the story, which ALG believes is most likely.

  • First, there is no mention by the NTSB of the seat belt lights being on or off.
  • Second, there is no mention of any warnings provided by the pilots or flight attendants about possible turbulence.
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, is that at least two passengers claim that literally minutes before the accident, the flight crew informed the passengers that it was a good time to get up and use the restroom as they were getting ready to start descending to Honolulu.
  • Finally, at the time, numerous flight attendants were also moving about and not wearing seatbelts. In other words, despite the seat belt lights being on, the word from the crew was that it was safe to remove their seatbelts, whether using the restroom or otherwise.

This contradiction and ambiguity of information falls on the airline not the passengers, especially when the flight crew has information (of which the passengers do not) about potentially adverse weather and risks of turbulence ahead. 

Analyzing Hawaiian Airlines statements to the press after the accident likewise raises questions of intent and whether the airline fully and accurately disclosed all the facts that it was then aware of. For example, Jon Snook, Hawaiian Airlines’ chief operating officer, issued statements right after the accident claiming that the seat belt sign was on and some of those injured were not wearing seatbelts. Amazingly, the press reports that Snook stated that the pilots did not have a warning that the specific severe turbulent patch of air “was in anyway dangerous.”  Of course not. That’s like saying a victim of a lightning strike never knew that the specific bolt of lightning was going to hit them before it did, even though they chose to climb a tree during an electrical storm. Obviously, the issue is not knowledge of the specific condition, but general knowledge that a specific danger might strike.

Another silence in the report is who had what weather information, when, and when it was reported to HA35. ALG attorneys want to know what (if any) relevant weather information was known to ATC (air traffic control) or to the NWS (National Weather Service) that perhaps was not timely or accurately passed on to HA35.  Our investigation continues.

While we are suspect of the limited facts disclosed by both Hawaiian Airlines and the NTSB in its preliminary report, we anticipate that we will get to the bottom of it with the rest of the facts in due course, either publicly and/or in litigation. The full truth is our goal for our clients, ourselves, and the public.

Aviation Law Group currently represents passengers on HA35. We have four commercial pilots who are also attorneys in our firm. Aviation accidents are all we do. If you or someone you know was on HA35, we would like to talk with them and you. Please call us to discuss what you know, and for a free consultation if interested.

Full text of the NTSB report is available below: