Asiana 214 Crash: Lessons Learned
Unexpected lessons all around from tragic botched landing.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jul 09, 2013
The crash of Asiana 214 on landing at San Francisco International Airport in gorgeous conditions this weekend is being dissected by investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board, and for once it looks almost certain that they will find the cause quickly and unambiguously. While new details might emerge — and I’ll be the first to acknowledge them if they do — it for now looks to be a simple case of humans doing a bad job of operating a perfectly good machine.
As you surely know by now, the Asiana 777 was inbound to SFO after a 10-hour flight in from Seoul, South Korea, when it got low and slow and hit the seawall at the end of Runway 28 causing a crash that easily could have resulted in all 307 aboard being killed. At this time, two are dead and a number are in critical condition. (The flight attendants deserve special recognition for their role in saving hundreds of lives.) Reports are that the glideslope component of the ILS was out of service, which could be a key detail in the investigation.
So far investigators are not talking about two key points: whether the autothrottles were engaged and which pilots were sitting where. When they’re mum on key details like these, it usually means that they think they’re critical to understanding the case.
The key might be found in a built-in operator trap, which results from the way the autothrottles on the 777 function. This is well known by 777 pilots and is referred to as the FLCH Trap. It’s possible that because of the autopilot mode (flight level change, or FLCH mode) the pilots had chosen, the autothrottles were, unbeknownst to the pilots, inhibited from activating automatically, resulting in the airplane getting very low and very slow. The possible scenario is that the pilot flying thought the autothrottles would come alive once the glideslope (which was actually out of service) became active. By the time the crew realized how slow (reported as slow as 103 knots) they were on final, the control columns were ready to shake or already shaking and it was likely too late to get the engines to spool up in time to avoid the disaster that did in fact result.
One lesson here is simple: Know your technology. Once upon a time, this kind of lesson didn’t apply to pilots of light airplanes (at least not very much), but today it does, as many of our systems technology are of the same order of complexity of many business jets and airliners. On just about every airplane I fly, there are things to know and avoid, like the 777 FLCH trap that might have been a factor in the Asiana crash. Indeed, it's likely that the airplane you fly has built-in traps as well if there's any automation built in at all (or even if there's not). The simple but potentially deadly autopilot stall springs to mind, as do various trim malfunctions and easy-to-make flight management errors.
Remember that the American Airlines 757 crash at Cali, Colombia, in 1995 was a result of bad FMS operation that ended in controlled flight into terrain. It was simple operator error with tragic consequences.
It’s a lesson that I’m taking to heart. During my next checkout in the Cirrus SR22, I’m going to insist on spending extra time going over autopilot operations, especially on approach, and searching out and better understanding the various potential operating hazards that might await.
Another important lesson is this: Don’t plan on figuring out what’s going wrong at a couple of hundred feet above ground level. It seldom turns out well. The only smart thing to do is recognize the unstabilized approach and initiate an immediate go-around. If the crew of Asiana 214 had done that as soon as the airspeed began to decay beyond limits, we wouldn’t be discussing this tragedy right now.
Finally, this tragic crash illustrates the fact that we need to know how to hand-fly our airplanes. When the automation gets the better of us, we should be comfortable with quickly turning it off and flying by hand. If you’re not proficient at being pilot in command, as opposed to a programmer along for the ride, let this accident serve as a wake up call.
The good news with that is, a few hours in a Cub with a good stick-and-rudder instructor won't seem at all like homework.
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