Asiana crash pilots didn't understand systems

2014-06-24 20:58
Passengers from Asiana Airlines flight 214, many with their luggage, on the tarmac just moments after the plane crashed. (AP)

Passengers from Asiana Airlines flight 214, many with their luggage, on the tarmac just moments after the plane crashed. (AP)

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Washington - The pilots of a South Korean airliner that crashed in San Francisco last year depended too much on automated systems they didn't understand, the head of the US National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday.

Acting NTSB chair Christopher Hart made the statement at the start of a day-long hearing to establish the probable cause and contributing factors of the Asiana Airlines disaster that left three dead and 187 injured.

"The Boeing 777 is one of the more sophisticated and automated aircraft in service," Hart said in his opening remarks.

"But the more complex automation becomes, the more challenging it is to ensure that pilots adequately understand it," he added.

"In this instance, the flight crew over-relied on automated systems that they did not fully understand. As a result, they flew the aircraft too slow and collided with the seawall at the end of the runway."

The 6 July crash of Flight 214 was the first fatal commercial airline disaster in the United States since 2009.

It was completing an otherwise routine 10-1/2 hour flight from Seoul when it clipped the seawall at San Francisco's airport with its landing gear, skidded off the runway and burst into flames.

All three of the fatalities were young Chinese women, including one who was struck by a fire truck beneath a wing covered with fire fighting foam.

Investigators testified that she apparently had not buckled her seat belt, and thus had been hurled out of the aircraft on impact.

They also noted, however, that 98% of occupants were able to escape the burning aircraft themselves - a fact they credited to the design of the seats and the overall aircraft structure.

Manual landing

The NTSB has previously said the autopilot was switched off about 4.8km out, and that the airspeed dipped as low as 103 knots (191km/h), or 34 knots below the ideal approach speed.

The Boeing 777 descend so low that an array of approach lights at the end of the runway - a key visual aid to landing - showed four red lights, a situation that would call for an aborted landing.

Due to construction work, the instrument landing system (ILS) in San Francisco was out of order on the day of the crash - requiring pilots to visually guide their aircraft onto the runway.

Central to the investigation has been the Boeing 777's auto-throttle and whether the pilots expected it to "wake up" and power up the aircraft when the airspeed dropped too low - something it did not

Investigator-in-chief Bill English said Asiana emphasized "maximum use of automation" by its pilots, including the use of autopilots to as low as 1000 feet (330m) from the ground.

He also suggested the pilot flying the approach, Lee Kang-Kuk, a seasoned Airbus A320 pilot transitioning to the Boeing 777, suffered rusty hand-flying skills.

Practice makes perfect

"Pilot skills degrade if not practiced," he added.

Lee was flying into San Francisco with an instructor in the co-pilot's seat, Lee Jung-Min, who himself was freshly certified to train new Boeing 777 pilots.

Another NTSB investigator, Roger Cox, said Flight 214 was instructor Lee's first with a trainee under his wing. Typically, he added, a rookie instructor on such a flight would himself be supervised by an experienced instructor.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, a commercial airline pilot for 32 years, doubted the crash was a case of crew incompetency.

Rather, Sumwalt said, "the pilot expected the aircraft to do something for him that it wasn't designed to do."

He added: "This probably may be more widespread than we may have thought."

Read more on:    asiana airlines  |  boeing  |  south korea  |  us  |  air crashes  |  aviation
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