On Saturday afternoon an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing at least two passengers and injuring dozens more, many of them seriously. I’ve been an airline pilot since 1990, and I’d like to offer some perspective on this still-developing story. But before getting to the accident itself, I’d like to express my dismay over the media’s shamelessly sensationalistic coverage of it. A certain degree of network hyperventilation always follows air crashes, but this time, from the absurd eyewitness accounts to the at times wildly inaccurate commentary of various aviation “experts,” they’ve taken things to a new level of inanity and poor taste.
One thing sorely missing from the coverage thus far has been a sense of perspective. I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of what happened. It’s a tragedy when anybody is killed in an airplane crash. However, the vast majority of the passengers on Asiana Flight 214 made it off the airplane alive. This simply was not an air disaster of the scale that was once relatively common and is not deserving of terms like “catastrophe.”
It is imperative to remember that Saturday’s accident was the first multiple-fatality crash involving a major airline in North America since November 2001. (There have been a handful involving regional affiliates, but the majors have been virtually accident-free). The streak has ended, but it lasted nearly 12 years, with some 20,000 commercial jetliners taking off and landing safely in this country every single day — an astonishing run. Is it perverse to suggest that Saturday’s accident, awful as it was, serves to underscore just how safe commercial flying has become? That’s asking a lot, I know, in this era of race-to-the-bottom news coverage, when speed and sizzle, not accuracy or context, are all that really count.
But consider for a moment the year 1985, one of the darkest ever for commercial air travel. By the end of that year, 27 crashes had resulted in the deaths of almost 2,400 people. These included the Air India bombing over the North Atlantic, with 329 casualties, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead. (These, the second- and fifth-deadliest incidents in aviation history, happened 49 days apart.) Also in 1985 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed more than 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of a Delta Air Lines L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.
Now, as for what may have happened in San Francisco: About the worst thing we can do at the moment is play fast and loose with speculation. Early theories as to why a plane crashed almost always turn out to be wrong or incomplete. All we know for certain is that the plane crashed short of the runway. That by itself is not a reason for the accident; it’s the result of something else gone wrong.
Based on what the National Transportation Safety Board and other sources have reported thus far, the pilots found themselves in the throes of an unstable approach — apparently below the proper glide path and at too low a speed — and failed to correct or abandon the approach in time. They initiated a go-around — a fairly routine maneuver, referred to by some people as an “aborted landing,” in which the approach is broken off and the jet climbs away for a second attempt — but it was too late. How or why they got themselves in this position, and why they did not correct or abandon the landing sooner, remains unknown.
Reportedly, Flight 214’s captain was new to the aircraft, and had accrued fewer than 50 total hours in the 777 prior to the accident. While much is being made of this, to me it’s a red herring. Pilots transition from aircraft type to aircraft type all the time, and it’s not uncommon for a pilot to have a limited number of hours in whichever plane he or she has most recently qualified in. But experience in a particular model and experience overall are different things. All airline pilots are highly trained and are highly experienced before they ever set foot in a jetliner cockpit.
What’s more, there is always a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit, a captain and a first officer — the latter is referred to colloquially as the “co-pilot.” Both are fully qualified to operate the aircraft, and they share flying duties; first officers perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do. It’s not yet clear which Asiana pilot was physically at the controls, the captain or first officer. In any case, either pilot would have been in a position to note and correct for deviations, or to execute a go-around maneuver. Why this didn’t happen we don’t know.
Whether transitioning from one type of aircraft to another or upgrading from first officer position to captain, pilots undergo a full, aircraft-specific training regimen, often lasting several weeks. This includes classroom training as well as hands-on instruction in both cockpit mock-up trainers and full-motion simulators. Once this phase is complete, all pilots fly the actual aircraft for a period of time under the watch and guidance of a training captain.
We’ve also been hearing about the supposedly hazardous SFO airport. Many in the media have been harping on the fact that the airport’s runways crisscross and are spaced close together, and that the instrument landing system (ILS) of the runway Asiana crashed on had been out of service, requiring the crew to fly a “raw” visual approach. Could this have been a factor?
To some extent, yes. This would have made the arrival trickier than normal. Even with all navigational equipment working, arrivals into SFO can be challenging. But that by no means made the arrival pattern unsafe. As in all lines of work, some aviation tasks are more difficult and work-intensive than others. All pilots are trained to handle the sorts of challenges SFO presents, and visual approaches, which do not rely on instrument guidance to the extent of the more common ILS approach, are common at large and busy airports. The lack of instrument guidance, together with SFO’s high-workload environment, may have been a contributing factor, but this alone does not excuse or explain landing short of a runway.
Already I’m speculating more than I intended to. Whether this was human error, mechanical failure, or some combination of the two remains to be determined. In the meantime, I would caution readers to be leery of what you hear from TV or the press, and be exceptionally wary of on-air testimony from eyewitnesses or passengers who were aboard the jet. The news channels salivate over these firsthand narratives, but any crash investigator will attest to the notorious unreliability of such accounts. If some of the things I’ve heard in interviews over the past 24 hours are any indication, stuff your ears with gauze and leave the room when an eyewitness starts talking. I don’t want to insult anybody’s powers of observation, but passengers have a terrible habit of misjudging and misinterpreting the basics of flight even when things are running perfectly normal, never mind in the throes of a violent emergency.
Meanwhile, looking at some of the footage from Saturday, I was appalled by the number of passengers who chose to evacuate the burning aircraft with their carry-on luggage. We’ve seen this in several on-the-runway evacuations in recent years. I understand that reaching for one’s valuables is human nature, and that people don’t always behave rationally in a crisis, but lugging your carry-ons down the aisle in the middle of an emergency evacuation, when seconds can mean the difference between life and death, is reckless. You’re endangering your own life and the lives of those people behind you. And those escape slides are much higher and steeper than it appears on television. They are not designed with convenience in mind. They are there to get a planeload of people out of, and away from, the aircraft as quickly as possible — without their belongings. When you slide, you slide very fast, and jumping into a slide with your belongings places physical obstacles directly in the path of others. Although cabin crew are trained to command people to leave their things behind, there’s only so much they can do without slowing things down even further.
Lastly, we’re hearing murmurs already about the fact that Asiana Airlines hails from South Korea, a country with a checkered past when it comes to air safety. Let’s nip this storyline in the bud. In the 1980s and 1990s, that country’s largest carrier, Korean Air, suffered a spate of fatal accidents, culminating with the crash of Flight 801 in Guam in 1997. The airline was faulted for poor training standards and a rigid, authoritarian cockpit culture. The carrier was ostracized by many in the global aviation community, including its airline code-share partners. But South Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system. A 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked South Korea’s aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. As they should be, South Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation’s No. 2 carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety.
Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of South Korean air safety in 2013. Plane crashes are increasingly rare the world over. But they will continue to happen from time to time, and no airline or country is 100 percent immune.