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.

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board photo shows the wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that crashed at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California in this handout released on July 7, 2013.
Ignore what you're hearing about San Francisco's airport and Korea's air safety culture.

Photo by Handout/Reuters

On Saturday afternoon an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing at least two passengers and injuring dozens more, many of them seriously. I’ve been an airline pilot since 1990, and I’d like to offer some perspective on this still-developing story. But before getting to the accident itself, I'd like to express my dismay over the media's shamelessly sensationalistic coverage of it. A certain degree of network hyperventilation always follows air crashes, but this time, from the absurd eyewitness accounts to the at times wildly inaccurate commentary of various aviation "experts," they've taken things to a new level of inanity and poor taste.

One thing sorely missing from the coverage thus far has been a sense of perspective. I don't mean to diminish the seriousness of what happened. It's a tragedy when anybody is killed in an airplane crash. However, the vast majority of the passengers on Asiana Flight 214 made it off the airplane alive. This simply was not an air disaster of the scale that was once relatively common and is not deserving of terms like "catastrophe." 

It is imperative to remember that Saturday’s accident was the first multiple-fatality crash involving a major airline in North America since November 2001. (There have been a handful involving regional affiliates, but the majors have been virtually accident-free). The streak has ended, but it lasted nearly 12 years, with some 20,000 commercial jetliners taking off and landing safely in this country every single day—an astonishing run. Is it perverse to suggest that Saturday's accident, awful as it was, serves to underscore just how safe commercial flying has become? That's asking a lot, I know, in this era of race-to-the-bottom news coverage, when speed and sizzle, not accuracy or context, are all that really count. 

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But consider for a moment the year 1985, one of the darkest ever for commercial air travel. By the end of that year, 27 crashes had resulted in the deaths of almost 2,400 people. These included the Air India bombing over the North Atlantic, with 329 casualties, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead. (These, the second- and fifth-deadliest incidents in aviation history, happened 49 days apart.) Also in 1985 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed more than 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of a Delta Air Lines L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.

Now, as for what may have happened in San Francisco: About the worst thing we can do at the moment is play fast and loose with speculation. Early theories as to why a plane crashed almost always turn out to be wrong or incomplete. All we know for certain is that the plane crashed short of the runway. That by itself is not a reason for the accident; it's the result of something else gone wrong. 

Based on what the National Transportation Safety Board and other sources have reported thus far, the pilots found themselves in the throes of an unstable approach—apparently below the proper glide path and at too low a speed—and failed to correct or abandon the approach in time. They initiated a go-around—a fairly routine maneuver, referred to by some people as an "aborted landing," in which the approach is broken off and the jet climbs away for a second attempt—but it was too late. How or why they got themselves in this position, and why they did not correct or abandon the landing sooner, remains unknown. 

Reportedly, Flight 214's captain was new to the aircraft, and had accrued fewer than 50 total hours in the 777 prior to the accident. While much is being made of this, to me it's a red herring. Pilots transition from aircraft type to aircraft type all the time, and it's not uncommon for a pilot to have a limited number of hours in whichever plane he or she has most recently qualified in. But experience in a particular model and experience overall are different things. All airline pilots are highly trained and are highly experienced before they ever set foot in a jetliner cockpit. 

What’s more, there is always a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit, a captain and a first officer—the latter is referred to colloquially as the "co-pilot." Both are fully qualified to operate the aircraft, and they share flying duties; first officers perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do. It’s not yet clear which Asiana pilot was physically at the controls, the captain or first officer. In any case, either pilot would have been in a position to note and correct for deviations, or to execute a go-around maneuver. Why this didn't happen we don't know.    

Whether transitioning from one type of aircraft to another or upgrading from first officer position to captain, pilots undergo a full, aircraft-specific training regimen, often lasting several weeks. This includes classroom training as well as hands-on instruction in both cockpit mock-up trainers and full-motion simulators. Once this phase is complete, all pilots fly the actual aircraft for a period of time under the watch and guidance of a training captain.