In Asiana Boeing 777 crash at San Francisco, speed control scrutinized

Several days after the crash landing of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 en route from Seoul at San Francisco International Airport, investigators remain unsure about what went wrong. They are paying special attention to the plane’s cruise control:

New details in the accident investigation that were revealed Tuesday by National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman were not conclusive about the cause of Saturday’s crash. But they raised potential areas of focus: Was there a mistake made in setting the automatic speed control, did it malfunction or were the pilots not fully aware of what the plane was doing?

One of the most puzzling aspects of the crash has been why the wide-body Boeing 777 jet came in far too low and slow, clipping its landing gear and then its tail on a rocky seawall just short the runway. The crash killed two of the 307 people and injured scores of others, most not seriously. . .

The autothrottle was set for 157 mph and the pilots assumed it was controlling the plane’s airspeed, Hersman said. However, the autothrottle was only “armed” or ready for activation, she said.

Hersman said the pilot at the controls, identified by Korean authorities as Lee Gang-guk, was only about halfway through his training on the Boeing 777 and it was his first time landing that type of aircraft at the San Francisco airport. And the co-pilot, identified as Lee Jeong-Min, was on his first trip as a flight instructor.

Two of the four pilots were questioned Monday and the other two and air traffic controllers were interviewed Tuesday, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport officials in South Korea. The ministry hadn’t requested any criminal investigation because a probe is underway to determine the cause of the crash.

In the 777, turning the autothrottle on is a two-step process — first it is armed then it is engaged, Boeing pilots said.

Associated Press

It’s common for pilots to rely on automated controls when they fly, which flight instructors say can affect a pilot’s abilities:

Still unclear is whether the auto throttle, which regulates fuel to the engines to control speed, was shut off or perhaps unintentionally left in an idle mode. That might account for the slow speed, but it wouldn’t explain why the pilots didn’t recognize their peril and act in time to avoid the crash, pilots and aviation safety experts said. . .

“It sounds like they let the airplane get slow and it came out from under them,” said John Cox, a former Air Line Pilots Association air crash investigator. “When airplanes are very slow like that, even if they are not stalled, they can develop a sink rate that it takes a lot of power to arrest.”

Rory Kay, a training captain for a major airline who flies internationally, said, “We’re all wondering the same thing — why no reaction?”

Overall, automation has also been a boon to aviation safety, providing a consistent precision that humans can’t duplicate. But pilots and safety officials have expressed concern in recent years that pilots’ ”automation addiction” has eroded their flying skills to the point that they sometimes don’t know how to recover from stalls and other problems. Dozens of accidents in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover have occurred in recent years.

“If your last dozen landings were autopilot landings and here you are faced with nothing but visual (cues) to deal with, your rust factor would be greater,” said Cass Howell, a former military pilot and human factors expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Too much automation can undermine your flying skills.”

Associated Press

The NTSB released details about the pilots of Asiana Flight 214, which crashed Saturday in San Francisco, killing two passengers. (Associated Press)

The two people who died in the crash were Ye Meng Yuan and her classmate, Wang Lin Jia, both 16. Police are investigating whether one of them might have been hit by a fire truck on its way to the scene:

“One of our fire apparatus may have come into contact with one of our two victims,” Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said during a news conference called to highlight the heroic efforts of first responders. “I assure you, we are looking closely at this.”

Findings of what caused the 16-year-old’s death — the plane crash, the fire truck, or both — might not come for several weeks.

A firefighter first reported to a superior Saturday that a passenger who was on the ground roughly 30 feet from the wreckage and near the escape slide may have been run over as fire crews were shifting from dousing the flames to taking victims to hospitals, officials said.

Police, FBI agents, the coroner and other officials were notified after the firefighter at the scene reported his concerns, officials said. The drivers of the first five trucks to respond to the emergency were given drug and alcohol tests, which they passed.

It’s not clear why the firefighters thought someone had been run over. Fire Department officials said they did not want to provide details because of the ongoing investigation by city police, the county coroner whose office received the body and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Associated Press

The reaction in South Korea was one of national contrition:

The president issued a statement of regret. With a low bow, Asiana Airlines’ chief apologized not just to passengers and their families but to all of South Korea. Along with sadness over one of the highest-profile crashes by a Korean air carrier in recent years, average South Koreans expressed shame and embarrassment about how it would reflect on their country.

It is a reaction that would be difficult to imagine coming from people in the U.S. or many other countries. The successes and failures of big South Korean firms are intimately linked to this small, proud, recently developed country’s psyche.

“I really think that foreigners see this accident as a reflection on all of South Korea,” Cheon Min-jun, an office worker in his mid-30s, said Tuesday in Seoul.

South Koreans take great interest in the global profile of local companies and of ethnic Koreans on the world stage. Many feel pride, for instance, seeing Samsung billboards in New York’s Times Square. And when a company’s stumbles draw international attention, there’s a collective sense of national shame, even for South Koreans who have no connection to the company beyond nationality.

“In the West, the separation between governments and society and businesses is more distinct,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. “The large organizations in Korean life are not standing independently of each other; they’re working together, in unity, pursuing a grand vision of Korea Inc.”

Associated Press

For past coverage of this story, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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