The crew of Korean Air Flight 801 grew nervous as the Boeing 747 approached Agana, Guam, on a rainy night in August. Something didn't feel right.

The plane, being flown by autopilot, was descending steeply. The crew talked about the altitude, and someone said several times that the airport "is not in sight." But investigative sources said neither the copilot nor the flight engineer spoke out boldly, as trained, to alert the captain or even to urge breaking off the landing.

Alarms suddenly sounded in the cockpit. After an excruciating pause of several seconds, the captain finally cut off the autopilot and prepared to pull up. At almost that moment, the crew of another plane perhaps 50 miles away saw the clouds ahead glow bright red.

The red glow was the Korean Air jet slamming into the top of Nimitz Hill, killing 228 of the 254 people on board. The moments of hesitation may have made the difference because the jumbo jet would have cleared the hill if it had been just a few feet higher.

The question haunting investigators is why the copilot and flight engineer failed to challenge the captain. Specifically, some investigators are wondering whether cultural factors -- in this case, a traditional Korean deference to command authority -- may have played a role in the crash. Others experts counter that cultural factors play only a minor role in air safety, and some fear that even raising the issue may smack of racism. The question of why nobody in the cockpit spoke up forcefully is crucial because this kind of crash -- in which a perfectly good plane flies into the ground -- happens with alarming frequency worldwide. Such disasters account for as many as eight out of every 10 crashes and more than 9,000 deaths on commercial flights in the jet age.

The issue is so controversial that the word "culture" may never be uttered in three days of National Transportation Safety Board hearings that begin next week in Honolulu, one investigator said. But many of the questions will touch on whether the crew trusted too much in automation and whether the copilot and flight engineer deferred too much to the captain in the Aug. 6 crash.

A transcript of the plane's cockpit voice recorder, now a closely held secret, will reveal more about the last moments in the cockpit when it is released on Tuesday, the first day of the hearings. But U.S. and Korean sources confirmed it will likely reveal a lost, confused crew that apparently did not follow its training.

Investigators and academics do not suggest that one culture produces superior pilots. But studies have found striking variations in the way pilots from different countries approach relationships with their colleagues in the cockpit -- and that in turn suggests that airlines must adjust their training regimens to account for those differences. U.S.-inspired training programs have been imported over the world, and some safety experts have suggested they can fail to recognize national differences.

One survey of pilots from 12 countries, for instance, found that Korean pilots ranked highest for their trust in automation; pilots from the United States, Australia and Ireland ranked the lowest. Another study of 10,000 pilots detailed how Korean aviators report greater shame when they make a mistake in front of their crew members while Filipino pilots view their airline as being a large family, thus favoring a more benign and paternalistic command style.

Statistics show that some areas of the world, and some national airlines, have terrible safety records.

In the past decade, only five of the world's hundreds of airlines have had four or more fatal crashes, and four of them are Asian: Air India with seven, Korean Air with five, China Air with four and Garuda Indonesian with four. One U.S. airline made the list: USAir -- now US Airways -- with five.

Korean Air 801 became the 14th Asian aircraft in the last 10 months to go down. These crashes killed a total of 856 people, according to a count by Morton Beyer & Agnew, an aviation consulting firm. The consultants said most of these appeared to be planes being flown into the ground -- in industry parlance, "controlled flight into terrain" -- and asked whether the aviation industry should "form a task force to review qualifications and training of Asian airmen."

Yet questions of culture are not clear-cut. The Japanese, like the Koreans, have a hierarchical society. Yet the Japanese have one of the world's best aviation safety records. Such statistics, according to some researchers, leave culture far behind as a safety issue.

"While accidents tend to be geographically specific, they are not culturally specific," wrote Capt. Surendra Ratwatte of Emirates Airlines of Dubai in a 1997 study of the issue. "Of the three major accidents in Central/South America last year, for instance, only one was a Latin American airline. The others were a North American carrier and a European one. The poor safety record in South America can be accounted for by a combination of high mountains, poor infrastructure and relatively crowded skies. Culture plays very little part in any of this."

Moreover, like all crashes, an unusual set of circumstances combined to lead to the Korean Air 801 accident. If culture is part of the equation, it may be only a tiny part. Investigators want to know why the plane was flying too low and why the crew was confused about its approach altitude. Why was part of the airport's instrument landing system off-line? Why was an air traffic control altitude warning device on Guam misprogrammed?

Korean Air officials have complained that spurious radio signals also may have confused the crew, and one witness is scheduled to discuss that subject at the hearing.

Investigators also will delve into the role the Federal Aviation Administration plays in overseeing foreign airlines that fly into the United States. The safety board previously has criticized the FAA as sometimes lax in enforcing safety regulations on foreign carriers.

Many questions also will be raised about how Korean Air trains its pilots.

Investigators have found that parts of Korean Air's training in some critical areas can be thin. For instance, pilots were certified to do instrument approaches if they successfully perform the same instrument approach to the Kimpo airport near Seoul only three times. Crews are given little training in how to handle unusual approaches, according to investigators.

This could be important in the Korean Air 801 crash because the crew was informed that the airport's glideslope -- one of the guidance tools in the instrument landing system -- was out. That meant the crew was supposed to do a "nonprecision" approach with different requirements, including maintaining higher altitudes on the approach.

Some questions will have no easy answers, however, particularly ones regarding the crew's actions that night. For instance, why did crew members allow the autopilot to continue flying the plane until just seconds before the crash?

Sources close to the investigation said Korean Air places heavy reliance on the use of cockpit automation, which is so sophisticated these days that it often can follow an approach path and perform a better landing than pilots flying by hand. Yet numerous studies show that overreliance on automation can be a killer. Pilots who trust automation too much will be reluctant to turn it off and "just fly the plane," even when they see things going wrong. The Flight 801 captain did not turn off the automation until moments before the plane crashed.

A study by Paul J. Sherman, Robert L. Helmreich and Ashleigh C. Merritt of the University of Texas psychology department indicates that national culture is a major factor in determining whether a pilot trusts and prefers automation. In their survey of 5,879 pilots from 12 nations, 100 percent of Korean pilots answered "yes" when asked if they prefer automation and whether the effective pilot "always" uses automation -- the highest percentage of all the groups.

"Individualistic, egalitarian-based societies" such as the United States, Australia and Ireland "may feel more comfortable asserting themselves' with the FMC {flight management computer}, while pilots from more hierarchical national cultures (e.g., many Asian countries) may be more inclined to accept the FMC's authority without question," the study said.

Korean Air spokeswoman Penny Pfalger said officials had not seen the survey, but that Korean Air pilots are required to confirm and cross-check everything the automation does. "There is no pilot, Korean or American, who would rely 100 percent on automation," she said.

Culture and flying come together closely in a type of training called "crew resource management," or CRM. The basic premise of this training is that cockpit crew members must communicate clearly, especially in emergencies. Copilots and flight engineers must speak up forcefully when they see problems, and captains must listen.

Pfalger also said the airline has intensified its training, particularly in crew resource management, and "Korean Air pilots are trained in the same CRM programs as United Airlines and American Airlines."

"Koreans and Americans have been partners in conflict and commerce for 50 years," she said. The Korean attitude is that if Americans develop an effective training program, "then it's God's program."

Among other things, this cockpit training involves putting crews through various flight exercises in aircraft simulators, including emergencies, and videotaping the way the crew interacts. Later the tape is played so the crew can see the ways they communicate, or fail to communicate.

Such training initially grew out of a 1978 United Airlines crash near Portland, Ore., in which the captain ignored the rest of the crew's timid protestations that the plane was low on fuel while he worked with another problem. In the ensuing crash, 10 of the 189 people aboard were killed.

The longtime American tradition of hiring military pilots as commercial pilots also created problems because ex-military captains tended to view themselves as commanders and the rest of the crew as underlings to follow instructions.

Some aviation professionals have raised the possibility that it may be a mistake to impose this made-in-America training on the rest of the world, at least in its current form.

"The ideal to which many CRM courses seem to aspire is a sort of good buddies' concept," wrote Capt. Steve Last, a British Airways pilot long active in aviation safety, in a paper called "Eliminating Cockpit-Caused Accidents." "This is really an American social ideal based primarily on strong respect for the individual."

Most societies have what he called the "good boss" concept, he said, meaning a highly skilled commander with accurate and obedient subordinates. "It seems both arrogant and counterproductive to tell people that if they want to fly safely, they need to change their entire social and cultural framework when they enter the cockpit," he wrote. Korean Air's Pfalger said Korean authorities have instituted many safety-related programs in the past few years, before and after the Guam crash. In 1996, the airline even began a safety bonus program that pays employees half of one month's salary when safety rates are sufficiently high. The bonus was paid in 1996, she said. "Culture may have been a problem in the past," Pfalger said. "But I'm assured it's not a problem now."