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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 9, 2003

Residents were correct on low-flying jet, records show

 •  Map (opens in new window): Plane's flight path traced

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

The low-flying China Airlines plane that startled thousands of residents last month was farther inland and lower over Honolulu than first reported, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

The records, obtained by The Advertiser under a federal Freedom of Information Act request, show the 747 passed directly over or within a few hundred feet of many Honolulu landmarks, including Diamond Head, Ala Wai Canal, Century Center condominiums, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Straub Hospital and the State Library.

By the time the pilot lined up a final approach to Honolulu airport's reef runway over the Mission Houses Museum, the plane already had been nearly a mile inland and was flying at about 1,000 feet. Initial reports from the FAA said the plane was about one-quarter mile from the shoreline and stayed above 1,200 feet over land.

The new information is based on analysis of second-by-second FAA radar readings that show exact longitude, latitude and altitude positions.

The plane's approach over land violated local custom and written guidelines used by Honolulu air traffic controllers, but did not break any laws or regulations, said FAA spokesman Paul Turk. The FAA has cleared the pilot of any wrongdoing and considers an investigation of the incident closed, Turk said.

The most likely explanation for the errant flight path shortly before 7 a.m. Saturday Jan. 4 is that the pilot, who was cleared to land on runway 26L using visual flight rules rather than instruments, was unfamiliar with the airport's landing patterns and noise concerns, several experienced pilots and airline officials said.

The FAA did not interview the China Airlines pilot or crew before they left Hawai'i and did not have access to on-board conversations between crew members, officials said.

The FAA records show China Airlines Flight 018 approaching Honolulu from the west about 6:40 a.m. Jan. 4. Because of prevailing winds that day, the plane had to make a 180-degree turn to land on the reef runway, designated 26L.

The only indication of anything out of the ordinary in transcripts of conversations between the plane and ground controllers was a gentle reminder from the airport tower after the plane landed that "in the future for noise abatement when you're coming in for runway two six left just keep it offshore and don't go over land," according to FAA records.

Brenessel said pilots familiar with Honolulu make the turn over water, then hug the Waikiki and Ala Moana coastlines before making another 45-degree left turn near Sand Island.

"He probably hadn't flown into Honolulu before," said Steve Brenessel, communications committee chairman for the Aloha chapter of the Airlines Pilot Association and a longtime Aloha Airlines pilot. "Most of the pilots here know not to overfly the land. It's unusual but sometimes it happens."

At 6:41 a.m. the airport's control tower gave the plane, still on its downwind leg, clearance to land.

Two minutes later the plane began to make a wide turn that took it directly over Diamond Head. At the time, 6:43 and 49 seconds, the plane was flying at 1,500 feet, just 740 feet above the volcano's summit.

From there the plane passed over a low-rise residential complex at Pu'ulei Circle ("It put the fear of God into me," resident Betty Rodriguez said), overflew the Honolulu Zoo, cut across a corner of Waikiki, followed the Ala Wai Canal and headed over Mo'ili'ili and Makiki.

When the plane was just two blocks mauka of the 41-story Century Center at the corner of Kapi'olani Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue, it was flying at 1,300 feet, still within FAA regulations.

At about the same time, 6:44 a.m., an approach controller in the FAA's Honolulu control facility noticed the plane's unusual position over land and had the tower controller stress again the right runway for landing. The pilot acknowledged that he was headed for runway 26L.

Following the King Street corridor, the plane passed over Straub Clinic & Hospital and past the Municipal Building. Between the Mission Houses Museum and the edge of Honolulu Harbor, the plane descended from 1,000 to 900 feet, according to the records.

"It was pretty shocking to see. I really wondered if he was going to clear the buildings," said Michael Cashman who was working in his 30th floor Bishop Street office when he saw the plane pass the Municipal Building and turn toward the harbor.

The plane made a routine landing at the airport without any further communication with the tower.

The incident prompted dozens of calls from residents who either saw the plane as it passed over town that Saturday morning or were startled awake as it roared overhead.

"It's like when the Air Force F-15s fly their missing-man formation over Punchbowl on Memorial Day," Brenessel said. "If you don't know it's coming, it can scare the daylights out of you."

In the aftermath of the complaints, local FAA officials gave refresher briefings to all controllers, reminding them to keep planes approaching the runway over water, and barring pilots on visual approaches from going over land.

Brenessel said the rules to stay offshore are known and obeyed by most pilots, but still just guidelines.

"If a controller tells you to remain offshore, you better have a good reason for not doing so, but I don't think it's anything you can be written up for," he said.

Rodriguez, the Pu'ulei Circle resident who was too scared to get out of bed when the China Airlines plane rumbled over her home, said there have been no similar recurrences since the FAA issued its briefings.

Michelle Matson, a member of Residents Against Aircraft Noise, said however that the planes continue to be a problem.

"It hasn't been any quieter," she said. "The China Airlines was a particularly grievous intrusion, but the incoming flights are still flying right there at the whitewater mark. That's not offshore. It's a matter of concern and safety. We can't sleep and we're worried about the risk of the planes so close every day."

The group is continuing to press the FAA to move all flights at least two miles offshore from Waikiki, she said. Meanwhile, the group is asking the state to speed up installation and operation of a $1 million network of 15 noise monitors, which would provide information about planes that violate state regulations.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5460.