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What Pilots Can Learn from the Asiana Airlines Crash

On July 6, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 — a Boeing 777 en route from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco International Airport — crashed into a rocky seawall as it approached the runway, killing three teenage girls. Thankfully, there were 182 survivors, most with minor injuries.

Following the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport officials in South Korea investigated the four pilots, air traffic controllers, and wreckage.

A final determination on the cause of the crash is months away, but as of July 16, here’s an overview of what was has been discovered and revealed so far.

Focus of the investigation

According to NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, the cause of the Asiana crash has not yet been fully determined, but the NTSB’s investigation focused on the automated cockpit controls and why the plane’s approach was so dangerously low and slow.

  • Was there a mistake made in setting the automatic speed control?
  • Did its automatic speed control malfunction?
  • Were the pilots not fully aware of what the plane was doing?

So far, the investigation indicates that the pilots made a visual approach to San Francisco Airport, and relied on automatic equipment to maintain airspeed. They did not realize that the plane was approaching too low and slow.

The autothrottle was set for 157 mph, and the pilots assumed it was controlling the plane’s airspeed. But the autothrottle was only "armed" or ready for activation, according to Chairman Hersman of the NTSB.

In the 777, turning the autothrottle on is a two-step process: first it is armed, then it is engaged. It may have been that the pilots were confused as to what autothrottle and pitch mode the airplane was in. They may have believed the autothrottles were on, when in fact they were only armed.

Choi Jeong-ho, a senior official at South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, said investigators confirmed that the auto throttle was in the armed position, and an exact analysis on whether the automatic throttle system worked will be possible after an analysis on the plane's black box.

Only moments before the crash did the training captain realize the autothrottle wasn’t controlling the plane’s speed, Hersman said. Their last second efforts to rev the plane back up and abort the landing failed, although numerous survivors report hearing the engines roar just before impact.

An in-depth review of the cockpit voice recorder shows that two pilots called for the landing to be aborted before the plane hit the seawall and crashed onto the runway.

Nothing disclosed so far by the NTSB investigators indicates any problems with the Boeing 777’s engines, computers or automated systems. 

About the pilot

The South Korean pilot, Lee Kang-guk, is an experienced pilot who had nearly 10,000 hours of total flying experience, but had completed eight flights and 43 hours on the Boeing 777—about halfway through his 777 training. He was landing a 777 at the San Francisco Airport for the first time, making a visual approach. He had flown Airbus jets prior to switching to the Boeing 777.

Kang-guk’s co-pilot, Lee Jeong-Min, had more experience landing 777s, but was flying as a 777 flight instructor for the first time. The pilots had not flown together previously.

FAA’s message to the pilot

Federal Aviation Administration head Michael Huerta urged Asiana pilot Lee Kang-guk to “get back out there and start flying again.” Saying that such incidents can “really mess with your head if you’re not careful,” Huerta told Kang-guk, “The more you dwell on this one crash, the more you’ll start second-guessing yourself, so the best thing to do right now is to just put last Saturday behind you, get back into the cockpit, and find your wings again, bud.”

Huerta continued, “Right now would be the absolute worst time to quit. You think every pilot is perfect at flying these Boeing 777s right away? You just have to accept that these crashes are part and parcel of the learning process and not let one bad landing get in your head. You’ll only get better with more practice. After all, how are you ever going to get better if you quit now, ya big goof?”

Huerta added that it would be “a real shame”” for Kang-kook to give up now, since he is still only 11 flights away from getting his license to fly 777 aircrafts.

Just a few days later, Huerta announced the the FAA will require co-pilots to have 1,500 hours — a huge jump from the previously required 250 hours — of flight training to certify for flying US passenger and cargo airline aircraft. Co-pilots will also now be required to have an aircraft type rating, meaning it will be required to have additional training and testing relative to the specific aircraft they fly.

Asian enhances training

Asiana Airlines announced that it will enhance its pilot training program. Currently, Asiana pilots have to fly 10 flights and a total of 60 hours on a 777 to complete its training program.

The improved systems will include training for visual approaches and automated flight, a strengthening of its training programs for pilots switching to a new type of jet aircraft, and conducting flight inspection on airports which are “vulnerable to safety.”

As Asiana prepares improves its training, the crash has created a debate among pilots about an over-reliance on automation — that relying too much on automation is making pilots’ flight experience less meaningful, and results in an atrophy of basic flying skills.

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