SFO Crash: It Is Never OK to Grab Your Carry-On Before an Emergency Exit, and Other Notes From a…

How we get from here to there.
July 8 2013 3:03 PM

Asiana Airlines Flight 214: A Pilot’s Perspective

SFO’s runways were not to blame; Korean pilots are not poorly trained; and it’s never OK to grab your carry-on before an emergency exit.

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We've also been hearing about the supposedly hazardous SFO airport. Many in the media have been harping on the fact that the airport's runways crisscross and are spaced close together, and that the instrument landing system (ILS) of the runway Asiana crashed on had been out of service, requiring the crew to fly a "raw" visual approach. Could this have been a factor?

To some extent, yes. This would have made the arrival trickier than normal. Even with all navigational equipment working, arrivals into SFO can be challenging. But that by no means made the arrival pattern unsafe. As in all lines of work, some aviation tasks are more difficult and work-intensive than others. All pilots are trained to handle the sorts of challenges SFO presents, and visual approaches, which do not rely on instrument guidance to the extent of the more common ILS approach, are common at large and busy airports. The lack of instrument guidance, together with SFO's high-workload environment, may have been a contributing factor, but this alone does not excuse or explain landing short of a runway. 

Already I'm speculating more than I intended to. Whether this was human error, mechanical failure, or some combination of the two remains to be determined. In the meantime, I would caution readers to be leery of what you hear from TV or the press, and be exceptionally wary of on-air testimony from eyewitnesses or passengers who were aboard the jet. The news channels salivate over these firsthand narratives, but any crash investigator will attest to the notorious unreliability of such accounts. If some of the things I’ve heard in interviews over the past 24 hours are any indication, stuff your ears with gauze and leave the room when an eyewitness starts talking. I don't want to insult anybody's powers of observation, but passengers have a terrible habit of misjudging and misinterpreting the basics of flight even when things are running perfectly normal, never mind in the throes of a violent emergency.

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Meanwhile, looking at some of the footage from Saturday, I was appalled by the number of passengers who chose to evacuate the burning aircraft with their carry-on luggage. We've seen this in several on-the-runway evacuations in recent years. I understand that reaching for one's valuables is human nature, and that people don't always behave rationally in a crisis, but lugging your carry-ons down the aisle in the middle of an emergency evacuation, when seconds can mean the difference between life and death, is reckless. You're endangering your own life and the lives of those people behind you. And those escape slides are much higher and steeper than it appears on television. They are not designed with convenience in mind. They are there to get a planeload of people out of, and away from, the aircraft as quickly as possible—without their belongings. When you slide, you slide very fast, and jumping into a slide with your belongings places physical obstacles directly in the path of others. Although cabin crew are trained to command people to leave their things behind, there's only so much they can do without slowing things down even further. 

Lastly, we're hearing murmurs already about the fact that Asiana Airlines hails from Korea, a country with a checkered past when it comes to air safety. Let's nip this storyline in the bud. In the 1980s and 1990s, that country's largest carrier, Korean Air, suffered a spate of fatal accidents, culminating with the crash of Flight 801 in Guam in 1997. The airline was faulted for poor training standards and a rigid, authoritarian cockpit culture. The carrier was ostracized by many in the global aviation community, including its airline code-share partners. But Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system. A 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. As they should be, Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation's No. 2 carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety.

Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of Korean air safety in 2013. Plane crashes are increasingly rare the world over. But they will continue to happen from time to time, and no airline or country is 100 percent immune. 

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of AskthePilot.com. He is the author of the new book Cockpit Confidential.