Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max sustains 'substantial' damage from 'Dutch roll' incident

Updated

A Southwest Airlines jet was damaged during a flight last month after it experienced an unusual maneuver called a Dutch roll.

Flight 746 was en route from Phoenix to Oakland on May 25 and flying at about 34,000 feet when the incident occurred.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane sustained “substantial” damage to its tail section as a result of the maneuver, although it was able to complete the flight. The damage was discovered only during a post-flight inspection. The rudder’s standby power control unit (PCU) was damaged. The standby PCU is a backup system in case the main rudder power unit becomes inoperable. No injuries were reported as a result of the maneuver.

Tracking data from FlightAware shows that the aircraft, a Boeing 737 Max 8 registered N8825Q, was sent back to Boeing on June 6.

Boeing referred to Southwest for comment, and Southwest referred to the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA said it is working with the NTSB and Boeing to investigate the incident. Southwest notified the NTSB of the incident on June 7, according to the agency, and it opened an investigation.

"The NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder Laboratory in Washington has received data downloaded from the airplane’s digital flight data recorder. Data from the recorder will aid investigators in determining the length and severity of the event," the agency said in an emailed statement. "The cockpit voice recorder, which is currently limited to two hours of audio, was overwritten and unavailable to investigators. A preliminary report is expected within 30 days of the date of the event."

The FAA reauthorization legislation that passed in May requires most commercial passenger planes in the U.S. to be outfitted with 25-hour cockpit voice recorders within six years.

What is a Dutch roll?

A Dutch roll is a maneuver that involves simultaneous yaw (side-to-side motion across a flat horizontal plane) and roll (see-saw motion over a horizontal plane).

"Dutch roll is an oscillatory motion characterized by a combination of rolling and yawing of an aircraft. It typically arises when the combination between the lateral (roll) and directional (yaw) dynamics of the aircraft are out of balance," Ken Byrnes, assistant dean and associate professor of aeronautical science and chairman of the Flight Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told USA TODAY in a written statement.

"In Dutch roll, the aircraft experiences a rolling motion primarily driven by the design (dihedral effect) of the wings, while simultaneously yawing due to the adverse yaw effect caused by the sideslip angle. This coupled motion results in a dynamic instability where the aircraft oscillates in both roll and yaw directions," Byrnes said.

Dutch rolls are fairly rare in commercial aviation.

“The opportunity for Dutch roll is usually lessened in the design of the aircraft," Byrnes said. "If it occurs, pilots often mitigate Dutch roll using various control inputs, but most large aircraft have a system that is designed to automatically counteract it called a yaw dampener.”

The movement can stress the airplane fuselage and cause damage as it did in the Southwest incident. Dutch roll incidents have caused planes to break apart in flight.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FAA, NTSB investigate Southwest Airlines 'Dutch roll' incident

Advertisement