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What can crash of Asiana B777 at San Francisco tell us?

July 8, 2013 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Investigators are working to understand how an Asiana Airlines B777 flight from Seoul crashed on landing at San Francisco International Airport at the weekend, killing two passengers and injuring more than 180, some critically.

Pilot error is looming large as a possible cause, based on analysis this morning of the aircraft’s “black box” flight recorders.

Reports yesterday said flight OZ 214 from Seoul had 307 people on board, including 16 crew. Of those, 181 were hospitalised or treated for injuries and 123 escaped without injury. Emergency slides were deployed as soon as the plane stopped. The survival rate was high for a major crash and experts acknowledged it could have been much worse.

The plane landed in daylight in fine weather, sunny with a slight breeze. Graphic film footage and eyewitness accounts suggest it landed short of the runway and its tail slammed into a seawall. The plane then skidded along the runway with its tail sheared off and burst into flame.Asiana crash SFO

The cause of the crash has not been determined but pilot error is a strong possibility. The FBI has ruled out terrorism. The plane still had plenty of fuel aboard after the 11-hour flight, as evidenced by the pall of thick black smoke when it burned, visible for kilometres.

Analysis of  flight recorders on the plane by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) at about 9.30am this morning (Australian time) show that the aircraft  approached the runway at unusually low speed. One of the crew called for more speed about seven seconds before impact. The “stick shaker” (a mechanical device that rapidly and noisily vibrates to warn the pilot of an imminent stall) sounded.

At the very last moment (literally 1.5 seconds before impact) one of the pilots requested a “go-around” – the term for aborting a landing, going around and trying again. But by then it was too late.

Paradoxically, the shock of the crash around the world reflects the fact that commercial passenger flying, particularly on big jets, has become very safe. The crash reminds us how profoundly exceptional such events have become. In decades past, plane crashes happened more often, though there were far fewer commercial airliners flying.

The Boeing 777 is considered one of safest planes in operation. More than 1100 are in service and the Asiana crash was the B777’s first fatal accident since the model first took to the skies 18 years ago.

Other big jets are also extremely safe. The B747 has an enviable safety record and the Airbus A340 and A380 have never suffered a fatal crash.

Kevin Hiatt, chief executive of the US-based Flight Safety Foundation, told the US newspaper USA Today that any conclusions about what caused the crash were probably months or years away. But they may arrive before that.

This morning (Australian time) NTSB investigators revealed flight recorder details, as outlined above. Other relevant details are:

  • The NTSB also plans to interview the cockpit crew when practicable.
  • Asiana says the plane was built and purchased by the airline in 2006. The airline knows of no engine or mechanical problems with it.
  • Four pilots were aboard. Asiana chief executive Yoon Young-Doo said they were all veterans, with more than 10,000 hours of flight experience.
  • A ground-based pilot navigational aid called Glide Path was switched off at the time of the crash. It is designed to help pilots make safe descents in bad weather, but the weather was fine at the time of the crash and the system is not necessary for routine landings. Investigators will look that that aspect, however.

Asiana, Korea’s second-largest carrier after Korean Air, is a full-service airline considered both safe and of very high service standard. The new website AirlineRatings.com, which rates airlines for both safety and service, gives Asiana a 7/7 rating – the perfect score, with 7 being the highest achievable in each category: safety and service.

Asiana won the prestigious Airline Of The Year award in 2010, conducted by Skytrax. It also won the Best Overall Airline In The World award from Business Traveler magazine in 2012.

Asiana is one of only seven airlines rated as five-star (for service) by Skytrax, along with All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines..

Written by Peter Needham

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