The probe into the crash of Asiana Flight 214 will focus on crucial decision-making by a pilot with 43 hours in a Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777 and the oversight he received from a more-experienced aviator in the cockpit at his side.
Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) said today that the pilot at the controls lacked experience flying a wide-body 777. He hadn’t landed one at the San Francisco airport where the aircraft hit a seawall short of the runway on July 6, leaving 181 people hospitalized and two people dead.
While it’s not unusual to have a crew member with limited time in a given plane in control, interaction between the two pilots will be a central focus of the inquiry into the cause of the crash, said Bill Waldock, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Investigators will probe whether they devoted enough attention to critical details, such as airspeed.
“I wouldn’t say the 43 hours is irrelevant,” said Waldock, whose specialty at Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Arizona, is safety and crash investigation. “The larger question is, why weren’t they paying attention to what the airplane was doing relative to the airport?”
Asiana said today that the pilot was Lee Kang Kuk, 46, who has 9,793 flight hours. Only 43 are on the 777 after he moved up from the narrow-body Boeing 737, and he was making his first trip to San Francisco, the airline said. Lee Jung Min, 49, a Korea Aerospace University graduate who joined Seoul-based Asiana in 1996, has flown 12,387 hours, with 3,220 on a 777, the South Korean transport ministry said.
Pilots’ communication is pivotal, because of the challenges in ensuring proper speed, altitude and direction. Flight 214 was traveling almost 40 miles per hour less than its target speed of 137 knots (254 kilometers per hour) near the airport, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
That put it on the verge of stalling, and the jet didn’t accelerate to attempt another landing until seconds before striking a San Francisco airport seawall, the NTSB has said. Typical airline procedures include having the non-flying pilot report on pivotal data points such as speed and altitude.
“Keeping an eye on speed is a basic, most essential rule,” said Ross “Rusty” Aimer, an aviation safety consultant in Los Angeles and retired United Airlines (UAL:US) pilot with 30,000 hours of flying, including 1,500 hours on the 777. “If you’re too fast or too slow, someone has to make that call at 1,000 or 500 feet or you lose your window” to try another landing, he said.
The NTSB hasn’t given details of the discussion now under way with the two pilots or the two relief pilots who were on board for the trans-Pacific flight, which lasted more than 10 hours after departing from Seoul.
“When we interview those four crew members, we will get a lot more details about their activities, their work, their training,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told reporters yesterday in San Francisco. “We will be looking to correlate all of that information with what we are finding on the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.”
Having one crew member with limited time at the controls in a particular aircraft type would be “perfectly normal” in the U.S. industry, said Rich LaVoy, a retired Boeing 777 captain at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines.
While U.S. pilots used to practice actual touch-and-go landings every time they graduated to a new model, now such training is conducted in multi-motion flight simulators, LaVoy said. Pilots at many U.S. carriers fly with instructors in the cockpit until they gain 50 hours of experience on a new aircraft type, a total that can be reduced based on the number of landings the pilots handle, LaVoy said.
“The first time you operate the aircraft, you’re at the controls with revenue passengers on board,” said LaVoy, a former president of the Allied Pilots Association, American’s pilot union.
Investigators’ pilot interviews and a review of voice and flight-data recordings are part of the effort to reconstruct the final minutes of Flight 214. It was the worst aviation accident on U.S. soil since 2009, and the first involving fatalities on a mainline jet since 2001.
“They will see if the crew did everything they should have,” said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB member who’s now senior vice president with consultant O’Neill & Associates in Washington.
Embry-Riddle’s Waldock said the most intense focus of the NTSB probe may be the interaction and conversation between the two pilots and whether they followed standard procedures as they prepared to land.
“Normally the non-flying pilot is calling out altitudes, reading other instruments,” Waldock said. “It’s frustrating because what happened is glaringly obvious. The question is why did it happen.”
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