Monday, July 8, 2013

Initial Thoughts on Asiana 214

I am getting increasingly annoyed with the coverage of the Asiana 214 crash in San Fransisco.  Every pilot I know - including myself - would want the benefit of the full findings of the investigation before being beaten and bruised in the media.  On one level, I understand that there is an interest to know what happened.  However, the media is trying to wrap this up before covering the next Obama family vacation and cannot wait the long time that the NTSB will take. 

Instead, we are going to talk about the "inexperience" of the pilots [if they were clear, it is relative inexperience in type - but at least the captain was a very experienced pilot], there is the focus on the alleged lack of safety in a "visual approach" [completely absurd - EVERY pilot first learns how to make visual approaches, and may later learn instrument approaches.  All airline pilots are instrument rated], talking about the problem with a nose-up landing attitude [if you didn't put the nose up, the nose gear would touch down first and damage the plane... and it might make the landing VERY eventful], and even a language barrier [FAA and JAA requirements state that one must be proficient in English to conduct international flights - at least those coming or going from the United States - I listened to the tapes, and while accented the English seemed fine]. 

What is actually known at this point is that the the plane struck the ocean barrier short of the runway touch down zone, and that it was the tail plane that hit first.  This means that the aircraft was not in a "landing attitude" but something more pitched up than this.  There is also apparently some information from the flight data recorders suggesting that the aircraft was well below the speed at which it was supposed to cross the runway threshold (Vref).  I have seen reports that the aircraft "stalled," meaning that the wings stopped producing sufficient lift to sustain flight.  While pilot error is certainly a possibility (and perhaps if we were gambling the one I would bet on), there are also some other potential explanations for what went wrong.  We should wait to rule them out. 

One thing that has not gotten much discussion that I would be interesting in learning more about is the "human factors" or the psychology of what has gone wrong.  This flight was about 10 hours, which is a long time to be flying an aircraft.  It will be interesting to learn more about what their days were like prior to getting into the cockpit.  I'm not passing judgment, but it is well known that the human systems aspects of flying contribute to incidents and accidents.  This is why from early in training we are taught to look at ourselves with the "I'M SAFE" checklist - Illness, Medications, Stress, Alcohol and other drugs, Fatigue, and Eating.

But all of these things interact with the mission and the aircraft.  Being a little tired from getting up early and hungry from not eating because you're going to your favorite $100 pancake breakfast at a familiar airport may require a different go/no go decision than if you're flying to an unfamiliar airport in a relatively new to you aircraft all while in hard-IFR.  As my DPE for my private ticket said in our conversation about these things, "it's difficult and not really desirable to have hard and fast rules, but rather than you've asked yourself if you're really up for this flight." 

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