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Plume-like cloud ‘shot’ in front of Hawaiian Airlines flight seconds before turbulence injured 25, pilot says

The pilot on the Dec. 18 flight from Phoenix to Honolulu said conditions were smooth when a smoke-like plume appeared in front of the Airbus A330.

A pilot on a Hawaiian Airlines flight said a plume-like cloud “shot” in front of the plane moments before severe turbulence that left more than two dozen people injured and damaged the aircraft last month, federal officials said Friday.

The pilot, a captain on the Dec. 18 flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, said conditions were smooth and on-board weather radar showed no turbulence as they flew above a layer of cirrostratus clouds at an altitude of between 37,000 and 38,000 feet, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report on the incident.

Just after 10 a.m., when the flight was 40 minutes from landing, a “cloud shot up vertically (like a smoke plume) in front of the airplane in a matter of seconds, and there was not enough time to deviate,” the report says.

Oxygen masks on a Hawaiian Airlines plane after severe turbulence injured passengers on Dec. 18.
Oxygen masks on a Hawaiian Airlines plane after severe turbulence injured passengers on Dec. 18.Jazmin Bitanga / AP

The pilot told the lead flight attendant about the incoming weather, and within 1 to 3 seconds, the plane — an Airbus A330 — plowed into what the report described as “severely convectively induced turbulence,” the report says.

"Shortly after the turbulence-related upset, the lead flight attendant informed the flight crew that there were multiple injuries in the cabin," the report says.

Satellite imagery later reviewed by the report’s authors showed strong cells associated with a storm system moving toward Hawaii that were near the flight path, according to the report.

No other pilots had reported severe weather in the region before the incident, the report says.

Of the 291 passengers and crew on board the Hawaiian Airlines flight, 25 people had cuts, bruises, nausea and head injuries, officials said at the time.

Six of the injuries were serious, the report says. Damage to the plane was described in the report as minor.