You are surely already aware of the Saturday midday crash of an Asiana 777 while landing at San Francisco. I’ve waited a couple of days to comment so as to get a clearer and hopefully more accurate/reliable understanding of what may have transpired.
As a quick summary, at this point it seems probable that the crash does not point to any underlying flaws or problems with the 777, its design or maintenance, and indeed the plane has been blessed with an excellent safety record to date. You can continue to fly on 777 planes with complete confidence.
It already seems clear that the immediate cause of the crash was the plane flying too slow and also too low. Confirming the modern world we live in, video has now surfaced that was coincidentally taken by a bystander that shows the plane’s final approach and crash (watch the video for a while – it is replayed zoomed in that shows the plane more clearly).
What is less clear is why the plane was going at what has been described by the NTSB as significantly slower than its planned approach speed, or why it was so low that it apparently clipped the sea wall at the end of the runway. Some pilots have speculated that the plane actually started off too high/fast on the approach, and so the pilot went into an almost stall attitude to help slow the plane down more quickly, and there has been at least one comment from a passenger on board about the descent starting off high/fast, but that’s far from an authoritative source/analysis.
The airline was quick to say there was no problem with either the plane or its engines; indeed the airline was too quick to say this; astonishingly quick to do so. How can the airline CEO know there was no problem with either before investigators had even started to look at the black boxes or examine any of the airplane’s sensors and control systems (the statement was made early on Sunday).
However, from the very preliminary and limited comments from the NTSB, what we do seem to know, from the cockpit voice recorder, is that the pilots made no comments about their low/slow approach until 2 seconds prior to crashing. It seems that at about four seconds before the crash, a ‘stick shaker’ provided a warning of a pending stall, and then at 1.5 seconds before the crash, the pilot called for ‘Go Around’ power, meaning he wanted to abort the landing, increase power, change the plane’s wing settings, stop descending and climb away, to try again another time.
To my mind, the astonishing thing is that it was only 2 seconds prior to the crash that either pilot (and for all we know, there may have been a third or fourth pilot in the cockpit, in jump seats too) made a comment about the poor approach. All four pilots were apparently reasonably experienced.
The pilot flying had little experience with the 777, but had flown 747s to SFO in the past, and due to his lack of experience, there was a senior supervisory/training pilot flying with him. Surely, in such a case, there would have been even more attention paid to every possible indication of the flight’s path.
Was there a faulty indication on some of the airplane instrumentation? A whole bunch of failures would have been required – air speed, altitude, pitch. But even if there was, that shouldn’t have mattered. The pilots should have noticed just from the visual clues – the plane’s pitch was nose high (due to the slower speed), the plane was obviously low – the runway would have visually appeared in a strange part of the windshield, and the ‘aiming point’ that the pilot would have mentally chosen would be moving and be inconsistent with the plane’s path.
It is true that a non-essential ILS (Instrument Landing System) aid was not working on that runway, but it is also true that this was a landing on a near perfect day. Mild/moderate wind, and a clear blue sky, no rain and no other extreme weather conditions or difficulty factors. Visibility was excellent and it was almost midday – the middle of the day.
Any pilot that you’d want to trust your life to should be able to land his plane under those conditions almost in his sleep. There are cases of obvious pilot error – too many of them, in fact. But this one would be such appalling pilot error that one almost wonders if the pilot error was assisted/aggravated by some sort of instrumentation malfunction.
On the positive side of things, only two people were killed, although some others suffered severe injuries. However the two people who were killed were seated at the very rear of the plane, so the pundits who claim the back of the plane is the safest part to be should be quickly rethinking their claims.
On the other hand, the two dead girls were mysteriously found not in the plane, but outside the plane, and as I write this on Monday, it is appearing possible that one of them may have died as a result of being run over by a fire truck on the tarmac!
It is very fortunate that more weren’t killed and that everyone was able to escape the plane before the fire raged with such an intensity that it burned through the roof of the plane. When I say ‘very fortunate’ I don’t just mean that it was a happy outcome, but also that many passengers chose to risk the safety of themselves and other passengers by delaying their exit so as to collect their belongings and to take their carry-ons with them. Indeed, one man admitted to grabbing his carry-on bag before grabbing his child! More on this here.
Every passenger who left the plane with a carry-on bag should now be charged with reckless endangerment of human life.
I have a very extensive four part series on how to survive an airplane crash, and I stick by everything in that series and also my own opinion about the safest place to be. Perhaps now would be a good time to (re)read it.
Lastly, for now, the Chicago Sun-Times headlined its coverage with the ‘clever’/amusing headline “Fright 214”. It has now been forced to apologize, because some super-sensitive souls felt this was a parody on the difficulty some Asian speakers have with the ‘l’ sound.