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United Flight Returns to Hawaii Because of Fuel Issues Due to Headwinds

A United Airlines flight heading to San Francisco returned to Hawaii Sunday afternoon after only two hours due to a fuel issue caused by strong headwinds. ( 기타...

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Ron Voss 4
In this year of unusual weather, perhaps the jet stream moved significantly southward in a few hours, from tailwind to crosswind. Bay Area weather forecasting has been especially problematic this year.
The captain's explanation is, I believe, supported by the log available on this website. His ground speed was a high as 530 kts in the climb (while climbing @ 1,600fpm), but fell below 470 kts not long after leveling off, and was 450 kts after turning back. This supports his assertion that winds changed significantly while enroute, and were at a 90 degree angle to his flight path. The ETOPS calc he referenced is for a very remote circumstance, but it's a requirement for a reason, and he made the right decision.
Interesting how JQPublic thinks airline ops are run The pilot of this flight should not be embarrassed for what happened. The airline should be proud. I have a new respect for United.
Thank you for your report Captain....seems so many commenters know so much more than! .😬 Just as a 'low on the totem pole' flight attendant, I'm just observing the human behavior in some of the comments....good for you that no incidents occurred, regardless.....
As the Captain of UA724 that day I have intimate knowledge of the flight. Our flight planning package showed a not uncommon 80 knot tailwind all the way to the mainland at FL380. We boarded a perfectly adequate fuel load including a 2000# pad for our ETOPS critical point. Some (as yet not explained) computer error was forecasting seriously erroneous winds. Actual winds were a sustained 110 knots at 90 degrees to our course resulting in a calculated 6500# overburn by the ETOPS critical time point. This would have resulted in an unacceptably long time to be at risk of splashing short of either KSFO or PHNL in the event of a failure that required descent. With the full support of United we decided the safest course of action was to return to PHNL. It is exactly this level of dedication to safe flight operations that results in United's extraordinary safety record.
Ben Eige 5
Thanks captain for the information and the right decision that ultimately saw everyone reach their destination safely.
bbabis 7
Thank you for the post Captain. Always best to hear from those involved. As most on here agree, regardless of the circumstance that caused the return, the correct decision was made. Safe travels.
Thanks for the post. It will be a disappointment to the conspiracy theorists and haters, but welcomed otherwise.
AWAAlum 2
I know absolutely nothing about this particular issue. However, purely logical thinking would arrive at the question: why was this the only flight that encountered this problem? Doesn't that seem to indicate that there was an error made in the calculation of fuel needed? Otherwise, dozens and dozens of planes would have been pulling u-turns that day.
The same reason that there are no 'old bold pilots.' Some pilots make more conservative decisions. Some Aircraft burn more fuel (individual aircraft). Routings change--not every HNL-SFO flight travels on the same track, altitude etc... Weight at t/o l/o determine cruise altitude (stepped). Heavier aircraft can't climb as high/fast. Even small changes make big differences. Every flight is unique in that sense.
Not withstanding your story about safety and reserves, the 777 has a 15 hour plus duration capacity with reserves This would mean that there was poor planning and that possibly in pursuit of reduction of cost. I would be a mighty unhappy camer if i was on that flight, unless, of course, United funded the extened stay.
There was a time when a pilot could order extra fuel. Today that decision is not solely up to the Captain. Fuel cost money and you need more fuel to carry the extra fuel as well. A thousand pounds of extra fuel can mean the difference between a flight making money or not. There must be real justification for requesting extra fuel today.
hell'va place to have to weather, and try again in the morning :-) :-)
Is better say am sorry than RIP
As a meteorologist, I can assure you that the global models get updated with satellite winds just after model initialization, and the satellite winds can see otherwise unforecast storms out over the oceans even if there are no surface stations or other upper air observations available. Therefore, if the aircraft didn't load enough fuel to complete the flight, the problem is with them, not the weather. Even if the storm forecasts are not perfect, they are still good enough for proper flight planning.
Your knowledge as a meteorologist may be top notch. Your knowledge of ETOPS flight planning and aircraft performance (not to mention the flight plan optimization programs) is probably not that of a professional dispatcher or pilot (guess).
The ETOPS/route planning requires very little deviation to begin eating into fuel reserves--which can be quite critical on longer ETOPS flights.
BTW, most flight plans are now optimized with (historical/current) aircraft telemetry data. So, the forecasts are not the only source for data. Sadly, I think some of this data may further complicate the planning process; especially if it paints an 'overly rosy' picture.
I wouldn't blame the weather forecasts either. We're lucky to have the excellent data we have in modern times.
pagheca 2
I guess that several statistical distributions (on weather, aircraft performances, etc.) are used to feed the algorithm computing fuel requirements. Therefore, out of a very large number of flights, and whatever safety margin have been used, some flights will run out of fuel soon or later. The alternative would be to leave all flights to load a very large and unnecessary amount of fuel onboard, with additional costs (and risks, as an heavy aircraft is probably slightly more fatigued than a lighter one, all other parameters considered).

This is something like asking vehicles owners to have not just 1 but 2 or even 3 tyres on board because there is a chance to get 3 flat tyres in the same trip.

So, there is a chance that nobody was really at fault here. Neither the Airline, the weather forecast or the aircraft and that this is just statistics at work.
toolguy105 -1
I disagree the NTSB and agencies like it in other countries are very good at finding the root cause of any accident. Had this flight run out of fuel the NTSB would have investigated and come up with who or what goofed. Plane fatigue is not in this instance an issue all though an engine is capable of burning more fuel than expected just like your car can get worse gas mileage as it gets closer to needing a tune up. Airlines monitored engine performance very closely and if one starts burning more fuel than it should its removed and taken to the repair shop.
pagheca 1
NTSB has nothing to do with my argument, that is substantiated by what we know at this point and give a POSSIBLE explanation without blaming any of the actors.

I'm not saying it is as I said (nobody can based on the few facts we know), but I just shown that there is at least an explanation that doesn't require any fault by someone.
And I said there is always fault to be found especially when it comes to safety of. In this instances flight. In this instance either the dispatcher or aircraft fueler made a mistake, their is not a pilot alive that would take of knowingly with insufficient fuel to make destination and there are two pilots that needed to accept the fuel report which is part of the aircraft weight and balance report given to the pilots in briefing. United is going to want to know who is responsible for this caused them a fortune and that aircraft was late for its next flight causing a ripple effect for the rest of the days flights.
bbabis 5
Thank you for the meteorologic perspective Robert. Its nice to know a little more about how it all works. I think most here understand that the weather is being used as the scapegoat by the company when some other part of the flight planning process went wrong.
Here is what happen, the airline is always taking fuel off the aircraft to save money. I'll bet that the Captain knew before T.O. and that he was going to teach the company a lesson and turn that puppy around and sleep in his own bed that night. Anyone knowns that the company questions you when you add fuel above dispatch amount.
You are an idiot!
He slept in his own bed that night???
Thanks, I saw that too. But I was unable to edit. If you how edit a post let me know.
I don't know how to do it...
Did it again! LoL
Interesting speculation from those who know very little. There is insufficient information to form any conclusions at this point. We don't even don't even know if this was a fuel issue. However, if there was insufficient fuel the problem started with dispatch and was not reviewed or caught by several people. Then again, this could have been a mechanical malfunction. Or, there could have been a major airline stock holder or politician who demanded more cashews. Either way, the Captain is the final authority and the aircraft is in one piece and no passengers got wet. Good job.
Yup. The PIC walked away from another one.
Or listen to the video that has a passenger quoting the pilot.
btweston 0
Or you could reread the second paragraph.
First of all this is an ETOPS planned flight!Probably even a redispatch flight? Seen it happen at UA that the Capt. determines he isn't going to have planned fuel for redispatch, and turns around! Wrong!Redispatch fuel is only valid at point of Takeoff.we can Monday Morning Quarterback this forever? Or Wait till the facts come out! They will!,
Flew that route for years, don't think that is a redispatch?
With the 777 the limitation isn't on how much fuel they can carry, but how much they can land with. I almost got bumped on a flight to Maui because we would be too HEAVY to land. What I can't understand is with all the traffic between the islands and west coast, with everyone reporting flight data, they would have any surprise on the forecast winds. That's where the problem lies.
Clearly the proper and expected "return" was done. What "steams" me is that one of our local television stations had headlines and story that the aircraft "RAN OUT OF FUEL". [Chuckle] Must have returned on fumes....
Prime time for the Monday morning quarterback. All souls safe, the important thing. Wonder if any more info will be forthcoming
A lot of unanswered questions. Load, pilots calcs, fuel loader calcs (Past errors with litres V's Gallons, extremely abnormal weather, airline being skinflints on fuel, avionics problem, another boozed co-pilot......
Is this the same airline that had a SEVERE fuel problem on a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo in a 747 that was covered up but resulted in some firings and may be loss of licenses ? rumor had it about engine shut downs.
Like my flight instructors always told me and it is my motto, not only flying but in life "when in doubt, don't". The crew did the proper thing.
s2v8377 1
How could you not have enough fuel for small trip like this with a 777. A dispatcher and flight crew are going to have some explaining to do. Surprised a large airline like United would make a goof like this!!!
btweston 0
United has somewhat of a reputation for making goofs.
canuck44 1
It sounds like the crew timed out after the four hours plus prep time. I read that and wondered if the United suits rationed the fuel the same way the next day.
Not quite sure how you arrived a time x-ed crew, unless they flew the inbound leg then, oh ya, they would have noticed the great tailwinds inbound!, and loaded enough fuel for the "long" trip back. Even if they were the inbound crew, with another leg to do that would have given dispatch enough time to do a crew change. Bottom line, they loaded insufficient fuel, but as I said earlier, better safe than wet.
It's unusual how they encountered these headwinds flying to the east into SFO from HNL. That has to be a mistake of the reporter.
The answer is more complicated than you know. This flight is ETOPS planed. Wiki the term 'ETOPS' and you'll get some basics.

The requirement for ETOPS requires that you can continue the flight safely--without permanently incapacitating the passengers--in case of engine loss or pressurization loss. What you may not understand is that flight routing/procedures are based on hitting the worst possible point--all the way along the flight path--and then descending to a safe altitude (for passengers to breath) and then flying in the shortest direction to a safe landing.
Beginning to see the point? Between HNL and SFO, that means turning around and flying BACK to HNL for a good portion of the flight--at very low altitude and very high fuel burn. This is the fuel required to safely continue. It is constantly updated. If you get strong tail winds--great. But, at certain points along the route, those very strong tail winds may make it impossible to return to a safe landing at low altitude or single engine etc....
Obviously, the amount of fuel required to takeoff in HNL and Land in SFO (normal ops, 2 engines, no weather etc...) is only a small part of the equation. This why many long-range flights are NOT flown on the shortest distance routes for ETOPS aircraft.
It's a obvious misunderstanding though.
Equal time point come to mind, and somebody was watching. I'm with you guys a day late and this is a cover story. And, no the details don't come out, except in the chief pilots office, cause nobody died.
bbabis 2
There are only two places on earth where you absolutely know where the wind will be from. Anyplace else, they can be from any direction.
obviously nobody got the joke about North/South Pole.......
Actually not correct. There are enough flights to and from just about anywhere that a good company flight planner can get it right to within company limits. Pireps, px reports, prog charts and good general knowledge of the route makes it fairly routine. There is more to this than reported.
I didn't notice the w/x prog or winds at FL340 that particular day but if leaving HNL and flying into a strong high pressure located 500 miles to the NE one may encounter a headwind component on the way to SFO. However, I wasn't there and I Would rather read about a return to departure than an NTSB report.
So if the jet stream is blowing West to East, and they were flying East to SFO, how do they encounter a headwind?
Haven't looked at the historical data for that day yet, but wouldn't being on the south side of a decent sized low pressure system due to the rotation air mass?
bbabis 3
Love your Draken picture Steven. We are getting better at forecasting the winds all the time but surprises still happen. The headwind mentioned in the story may also just be media made. They understand headwind and tailwind. A significantly weaker tailwind than expected to them is a headwind.
That, I have no problem believing. We used to have all kinds of fun with aircraft coming in to Hickam with winds. Had a C-20 out of Korea skip his refueling stop because the winds were so strong. A weaker than forecast tailwind is a lot more likely.

That's the Draken from the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Unusal for a big wide bodied B777 to return it does have the fuel capacity to go further unless UAL are not filling the fuel tanks full for such a short trip
If you read the article, it's pretty clear that the fuel load was customized for that aeroplane, that day with that load. They may have filled the tanks in the days of the DC3 but that was when gas was cheap. Aircraft are very sensitive to weight and fuel weighs a bunch, gas at 6.5 lbs or so and #1 and #2 closer to 7lbs per gallon. Water and soda weigh about 8.3. Then freight, baggage and people and the weight climbs toward max. gross.
pirahna432 10
Airlines don't "fill the tanks". Ever. They take the minimum fuel required to complete the flight.
30west 9
I think the "required" fuel is a better description than "minimum" fuel of the fuel load carried.

At my airline required fuel at break release at the end of the runway for any flight is burn+alternate fuel+reserve fuel+dispatcher added fuel+captain added fuel. Push the power levers forward with less than that and you departed without your required fuel.

The captain has the last word and the chief pilot supports those decisions. Dispatchers will present their reasoning to the captain, but will defer to his decision in the dispatchers role as sharing the responsibility for the PLANNING of the flight.
correction there some international airlines do fill there tanks on long haul flights QFA do this with there A388'S YSSY/EGLL Emirates do this as well
NOBODY 'fills the tanks' Filling the tanks is what you do with cars and boats. Aircraft fuel load is based on weight, capacity, fuel required, ferry fuel etc.. etc... Even if the particular flight requires MAXIMUM available fuel--the fuel loaded must be within maximum capacity (gals) maximum weight (fuel and aircraft) and adjusted for density etc... So, there is no such thing as 'filling the tanks' on a very large aircraft. No offense, but to simplify it, you give people the wrong impressions.
thats interesting to know thank you for that
No argument about the decision to return. It's just even with 100 on the nose, which generally is unusal for that route, additional fuel and getting to the destination is always preferred to a turn back. I think someone goofed up either in flight planning or read the met charts wrong. After all it is only a 2100 nm trip at best, in a 777?
bbabis 12
I smell goof-up also but the bottom line is that the error chain was broken and we are not discussing an emergency or accident.
jfflyboy -1
Someone definitely misinterpreted weather and fuel loading. It's a 777. It should be able to handle that leg with ease on the windiest of days. I also highly doubt there was 100 on the nose headed east. Everything I can find from that day does not show that sort of wind.
You would think that a B777 Captain should have uplifted more fuel than the FAA req'd, Destination, plus alternate plus 30 min at 1500' on a trip from HNL to SFO. I mean really, you only load enough fuel for a 5 1/2 hr flight (at best) over water in a 777? Kinda makes you wonder about the "what if" scenario re: loss of pressurization, precautionary engine shut down, and oh yes, stronger than planned headwinds! I'll bet it's cheaper to carry an additional 10k in fuel on a lightly loaded a/c than turn it around.
Ain't like these folks ain't heard of a "wet footprint"!
spatr 3
20+ here myself. Always take extra if I feel it's needed. Sometimes I clear it with dispatch, sometimes I walk down and tell the fueler. Never had any negative repercussions.

That being said there are numerous reasons this could have happened, from unforecast winds to reroutes. Maybe the Captain had been shorted gas by dispatch many times before and was sick of having to always correct it and launched to prove a point.
I don't think a United Captain would launch to prove a point to many repercussions if proved he did. I believe he was either shorted fuel by dispatch or the headwinds were not forecasted properly by meteorology properly which I find hard to believe on a well traveled route. PIREPS should have reported stronger than forecasted winds.
pirahna432 -1
Generally speaking, it's very difficult for pilots at major airlines to get more than flight release fuel. If they do, they generally have to have a very good reason why they did. It's pretty standard at airlines. But sometimes it costs them money when pilots make the right call and turn around.
744pnf 10
As an airline pilot for over 35 years I disagree. Captain has final say on fuel. Period.
I also flew more than 25 years an airliner of a major european airline.Nobody told me, how much fuel i have to take. The final decision is with the Captain
If you flew as a Captain etc.... just 5 years ago; your experience would not be as relevant as you might think. Things have changed.

And yes, the Captain can always buck the system and add more and more and more gas. But, you'll find that few do these days.

Yes, the final decision lies with the captain. If you think 'nobody' tells you what to do....then you don't work for a major airline today.

no offense, just how it is.


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