July 8, 2013

Flight 214: A pilot's perspective

By PATRICK SMITH Slate Magazine

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A screen showing a news program reporting about Asiana Airlines flight 214 which took off from Seoul and crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport as employees of Asiana Airlines work at Crisis Management Center of Asiana Airlines head office in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, July 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, Pool)

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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.

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