Asiana Flight 214 investigation


Asiana 777 crash probe focuses on actions of 'very experienced' pilots.

Nothing I’ve seen since this post has led me to change my opinion about the media’s often misleading portrayal of the experience of the pilot at the controls of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.

Gang-Guk Lee is a “very experienced” pilot, in the words of US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Deborah Hersman. That contrasts with descriptions, especially on bottom-of-the-screen crawls on international TV news networks, of him as a mere “trainee” or, in one instance I saw, a “rookie.”

I don’t think it’s completely irrelevant that the pilot was transitioning to a Boeing 777-200ER after 19 years of experience in other aircraft, including the 737, 747 and the Airbus A320 (on which he served as a captain for Asiana), but it should not be a major point of focus in the crash investigation. Lee in fact had a been ground-school instructor for Asiana pilots in training on A320s. (I believe, from what I have heard from Hersman on the subject, that NTSB, unlike much of the media, is not making the pilot's experience a point of focus.)

That’s not to say pilot error won’t ultimately be cited as the cause of the fatal crash, but it would be a mistake to easily dismiss potential findings of pilot error as a function of the pilot adjusting to the 777 or making his first landing at San Francisco International (SFO) in a 777. Pilots at airlines around the world routinely switch to new aircraft types and routinely have to make first landings at airports in new aircraft. (Lee had made 29 landings at SFO in other aircraft prior to the 777 crash-landing and had already landed the 777 at other major airports.)

It also does not mean a careful review of Asiana’s pilot training and crew resource management programs isn’t warranted. The circumstances of the pilot making the landing at SFO aren’t unusual, but there could potentially be underlying pilot training/cockpit culture problems that contributed to the accident. That said, it is too early in the crash probe to make any firm judgments and my experience in dealing with Asiana is that it is a first-rate operation that pays attention to details.

Based on the information provided so far by NTSB, it would appear that the actions of the pilots during the aircraft’s descent into SFO are the main focus of the investigation. That “very experienced” pilots could make critical mistakes during what should have been a routine landing on a clear day is concerning. NTSB has said its preliminary review indicates no problems with aircraft systems or equipment, including the auto-throttle and engines.

That leaves the board trying to figure out why the 777 had trouble lining up for a landing (the cockpit voice recorder indicates the aircraft was first too high, then on line, and then—at about 500 feet—too low) and why there was no recognition in the cockpit that aircraft speed had dropped to a dangerously-low level until just seconds before impact.

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