Automated Cockpit Props up Undertrained Pilots

Thursday, December 12, 2013
By George Hatcher

The Asiana investigation continues.

Back in July, the pilot who was insecure about making a visual approach in a 777 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on a visual approach in Asiana Flight 214’s Boeing 777. Specifically, he told NTSB investigators “it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane.” The glideslope was not working at the San Francisco airport, and that was an instrument the (*undertrained) pilot was relying on. The plane came in so low the tail struck the seawall and broke off. The video below shows the plane rotate 360 degrees and catch fire by the runway.

New Asiana Crash Video

Video with news commentary

Before impact, the relief pilot in the jump seat repeated several times “sink rate” trying to warn the pilots at the controls that the jet was too quickly losing altitude. One of the pilots said “It’s low.” Then there was a stick shaker alert (which occurs when the plane is about to stall from flying too slowly. I once had a pilot do a presentation that included the disturbing grinding of the stick shaker alarm as it violently vibrated the control yoke. It’s an alarming direction to the pilots to increase thrust.)

When the stick shaker went off, the instructor called for a go around. It went off four seconds before impact. It was too late.

Both the instructor and the captain were relying on the auto throttle, and both were unaware it was off.

In George’s Point of View

I do not know how anyone can watch the surveillance video of the Asiana crash and not marvel that of the three hundred and seven people aboard the plane, there were only three deaths.

I’m not discounting the wounds of the injured, nor those three deaths, nor the tragedy of one of the teen victims being run over by an airport crash tender. (That’s a whole tragedy by itself—who knows if she might have survived but for being so obscured by foam that she was not visible to crash responders—through the firemen who carried her out surely must have known she was there.)

A dozen critically injured, a hundred-sixty-nine injured, but only three deaths.

It’s nothing short of a miracle. Especially on inspecting the condition of the burned out shell of the hull. Especially on reviewing the just-released surveillance video that shows the plane splintering after impacting the firewall, cartwheeling like a crippled gymnast down the runway and dissolving into a cloud of dust and flame. No jet fuel fire here——leaking oil ignited as it poured on to a hot engine.

The Kazan crash (Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363) from November 17th is fresh in my mind. Everyone aboard–fifty people (forty-four passengers and six crew) all died. The plane just fell from the sky while landing at an impossible 75-degree-nose-down attitude, piloted by a pilot whose license is apparently fake. Everyone in that crash died. (Tatarstan surveillance below.)

Of course one can see the physics—that everyone on the Tatarstan flight received the full direct impact, versus how the rolling of the Asiana plane dispersed some of the impact energy. Still, there is tremendous force in a crash.

I know I should be talking about pilot training, because this is yet another crash that appears to be due to pilots becoming too dependent on technology. But I will focus on that another day. Right now, I am overwhelmed after looking at the crash tape.

Asiana—Cartwheeling Catastrophe
I am surprised that I have neither heard or seen choruses of amazement that all but three people survived the rolling catastrophe in San Francisco. Some credit should perhaps go to the rescue crew, quick actions of the cabin crew, performance of the emergency slides, and maybe even the aerodynamics of the 777 whose seats are required to withstand 16g of dynamic force.

Sure, there was error involved in this crash, but when you look at the survival rate, some credit is due to the 5.5 billion Boeing put into research, development and safety of the 777.

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