As planemakers build ever-safer jets, it’s often the split-second decisions by humans at the controls that can make the biggest difference between a smooth landing and a flight that ends in disaster.
The last moments of Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) Flight 214, which inexplicably slowed on its final approach, underscore the stakes in the cockpit even in aircraft as sophisticated as Boeing Co. (BA:US)’s 777, according to safety consultants, retired pilots and aviation scholars following the U.S. investigation.
Technological advances such as ground-warning systems and seats that can withstand greater impact helped produce the longest fatality-free run in U.S. aviation since the jet age began, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. Now, U.S. investigators are working to determine whether Flight 214’s pilots, with all the safety features at their disposal, could have done more to prevent a crash that left two passengers dead.
“Whether it’s a disaster or a close call comes down to the pilot,” said Les Westbrooks, a former commercial and military pilot who now teaches airline operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Airplanes have incredible automation. But when the human has to exercise judgment, you can’t design around that.”
The July 6 crash was the worst on U.S. soil since 2009, and the first involving fatalities on a large jet in the U.S. since 2001. The focus on avoiding crashes spans advances such as the 777’s automatic systems to keep from flying too slowly to cockpit-behavior studies identifying common pilot lapses.
Yet even with those safeguards, risks as simple as fatigue remain.
“Show me a pilot who’s ever flown who hasn’t been in that condition at some point,” 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.
Aimer recalled being at the controls of a Boeing 747 nearing Tel Aviv airport about 30 years ago when, worn out from delays and tight schedules, he briefly fell asleep and missed a couple of pre-landing checklist items recited by his co-pilot.
Trying to track an expanding array of safety-enhancing features -- including 3-D weather radar and data projected so that pilots see it while looking through the windscreen -- can be a distraction, while increased automation of basic flight functions may dull pilots’ response times.
“The stick-and-rudder skills get lost sometimes,” said Mark Epperson, a retired Boeing 767 captain who supervised pilot training as a former chief pilot for AMR Corp. (AAMRQ:US)’s American Airlines in San Francisco.
An abundance of instruments also can’t prevent a misreading of the data and a flawed response. Investigators said pilots failed to react properly to stall warnings in the February 2009 crash of a regional jet operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s Colgan unit, which killed 49, and the loss of an Air France jet four months later with all 228 people aboard.
“Pilots may think the aircraft is in a particular flight control state when in fact it is not,” said Todd Curtis, founder of safety consultant AirSafe.com and a former safety analyst at Boeing. The National Transportation Safety Board “will very likely be looking at” those issues in the Asiana probe.
The junior pilot of the Asiana jet, 46-year-old Lee Kang Kuk, was at the controls and was in training on the 777 with just 43 hours of experience on that model, and 9,793 flight hours, according to the airline. Before switching to the larger two-aisle jet, he flew the smaller Boeing 737, whose fuselage is about the same diameter as a 777’s engine.
The senior pilot, 49-year-old Lee Jung Min, had 3,220 hours on the 777 and 12,387 career hours. He received his trainer license for the model last month, and was making his first flight in that role. It was the first time the two pilots had flown together, the NTSB said yesterday.
Investigators will review whether a cultural aversion to disagreeing with a colleague played a role in the Asiana crash, said David Greenberg, a former executive vice president of operations at Korean Air Lines Co.
In a 1997 fatal crash in Guam, a Korean Air captain ignored misgivings voiced by other crew members and followed a radio signal he wrongly thought was a glide-slope indicator that gives pilots a steady descent path, investigators found.
“Respect for age and seniority runs very deep” in Asia, said Greenberg, who spent five years at Korean Air after that accident helping retrain pilots to improve cockpit culture.
Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger showed flying and communication skill in the 2009 splashdown by a US Airways Group Inc. (LCC:US) jet that was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” according to Peter Goelz, a former NTSB member.
When Canada geese flew into the engines during takeoff and crippled the single-aisle Airbus SAS A320, Sullenberger landed gently enough on New York’s Hudson River to keep the jet afloat until all 155 people on board were rescued. Then 58, the former U.S. Air Force pilot had 19,000 flight hours, 3,800 of them in an A320, and was also certified on commercial gliders.
“Sullenberger was a little bit of an old-school pilot,” said Goelz, who is now a senior vice president with consultant O’Neill & Associates in Washington. “He knew his aircraft and its capabilities, and when you listen to the cockpit recorder you say, ‘This guy really was in command of the situation and was making the right decisions at the right times. He wasn’t hesitant.’”
Transcripts of cockpit conversations showed Sullenberger calmly saying “my aircraft” as he took the controls from his less experienced co-pilot, who had 35 flight hours in an A320, then reviewing his options before informing air-traffic controllers: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
He then spoke a single word to passengers: “Evacuate.”
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