Korean Pilots Avoided Manual Flying, Former Trainers Say

As the Asiana Airlines Inc. jet neared Los Angeles International Airport, Captain Vic Hooper told his Korean co-pilot to make a visual approach, meaning he’d manually fly instead of letting automation do the work.

The co-pilot froze, leaving them too high and off course, Hooper said about the incident, which occurred several years ago. Hooper said he had to take over the controls to get the Boeing Co. 777 back on track.

“I don’t need to know this,” Hooper said the co-pilot told him later, explaining why a maneuver that’s second nature to most U.S. airline pilots rattled him. “We just don’t do this.”

U.S. crash investigators are examining the manual flying skills and cockpit teamwork among the pilots of Asiana Flight 214 as they determine why the 777 crashed in San Francisco on July 6, killing three teenaged girls from China. Two passengers remain in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, according to a statement yesterday.

Pilots were being told by air-traffic controllers to use visual approaches the day of the accident because the airport’s glide slope, which helps line up the correct path to the runway, was closed for construction, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said last week.

Too Low

The plane was coming in too low and had gotten almost 40 miles an hour slower than the target approach speed when its landing gear and tail struck a seawall short of the runway, Hersman said.

Lee Hyo Min, a spokeswoman at Asiana, declined to discuss the manual flying skills of its pilots, citing the NTSB investigation.

Asiana shares fell 0.6 percent to 4,810 won, the lowest since April 2010, at the close of Seoul trading. The stock has slumped 22 percent this year, compared with a 6.5 percent decline in South Korea’s benchmark Kospi index. Korean Air Lines Co. rose 0.2 percent today.

“As planes become more sophisticated, the government has told airlines that they need to narrow the gap between digital and analogue systems,” Kwon Yong Bok, director general of aviation safety policy at the South Korean transport ministry, said in an interview today when asked about pilots’ dependence on automation. He didn’t elaborate.

Asiana Pilots

Three aviators who flew for Asiana or who helped train crews in Korea said in interviews that the Asiana pilots they flew with, while intelligent and well trained on automated systems, rarely flew manually.

Hooper is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former Delta Air Lines Inc. captain with more than 25,000 hours in the cockpit.

Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines captain who trained crews at Korean Air Lines for Boeing subsidiary Alteon Training in 2008 and 2009, and Kenneth Musser, of Roswell, Georgia, said they also noticed that many Korean pilots struggled with visual approaches. Musser, a former Delta pilot, flew 777s for Asiana for almost four years until 2009.

“You will never hear an Asiana pilot request a visual approach,” said Hooper, who flew for the Korean carrier from 2006 to 2011 after ending his U.S. airline career. “That happens all the time here” in the U.S.

Touch, Gos

Visual landing is one of the first skills an aviator in the U.S. learns, as a civilian practicing on single-engine planes with an instructor at a small airport or as a military student pilot.

In both cases, pilots make dozens or hundreds of unassisted landings before graduating to more sophisticated aircraft, Aimer said.

Civilians in Korea rarely learn to become pilots because the country doesn’t have the same network of public airports, Aimer said. Most non-military pilots hired by Asiana are sent to flight school by the carrier, he said.

Among Korean pilots, even those who flew in the military, comfort with manual flying was unusual, he said.

“They know their procedures almost better than we did as instructors,” said Aimer, who now works at Los Angeles-based Aero Consulting Experts. “But we all noticed they all had more trouble with a simple visual approach than with a very sophisticated approach.”

Improving Record

David Greenberg, a retired Delta executive, was hired by Korean Air in 2000 to bolster its safety and pilot training following three fatal crashes from 1997 through 1999.

“I observed it,” Greenberg, speaking in an interview, said of Korean pilots’ deficiencies in hand-flying planes, while adding it wasn’t worse than with pilots elsewhere in the world.

A Korean Air Boeing 747 struck a hilltop in Guam on Aug. 6, 1997, killing 228 of the 254 people aboard. The NTSB said the co-pilot and flight engineer failed to monitor the captain, who had gotten too low, and found Korean Air’s training “inadequate.”

Korean Air has had a “stellar” safety record since its last fatal accident in 1999, Penny Pfaelzer, the company’s Phoenix-based spokeswoman, said in an interview. The company brought in outside pilots and managers and revamped its safety and training, Pfaelzer said.

“They’ve established training that is the gold standard in Asia,” she said.

Eroding Skills

There were no fatal accidents involving Korea’s two main carriers after 1999 until a 2011 Asiana cargo plane caught fire while in flight and crashed, according to AviationSafetyNetwork, a Web-based database of crashes.

Delta experienced a similar shortfall in pilot skills in the 1980s after introducing more automated Boeing 757s and 767s to its fleet, Greenberg said.

Flying skills have eroded globally in an era of heavily automated jets, said Robert Mann, a former airline executive who runs consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

International flight crews, who may make only four trips a month and spend most of that time on autopilot, “probably don’t get enough hand-flying,” Mann said.

While the accident involved different circumstances, the Air France pilots who crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 228 people, had difficulty flying the plane by hand after a malfunction switched off the Airbus SAS A330’s automation, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis.

Three Seconds

After noticing their plane had slowed to well below the target landing speed, the Asiana Flight 214 pilots didn’t attempt to abort their landing in San Francisco until less than 3 seconds before it struck the seawall, Hersman said.

While the pilot at the controls had almost 10,000 hours of flight experience, he had flown only 10 legs and 35 hours in the wide-body 777. A management captain making his first flight as an instructor was supervising from the co-pilot’s seat. Another pilot aboard to give the primary pilots a rest break was seated in the rear of the cockpit.

From the time that the plane descended through 500 feet, the point at which Boeing advises pilots to abort if they aren’t sure the landing is set up properly, none of the crew voiced concerns until the final seconds before the crash, according to Hersman.

The Korean government has announced it will investigate whether the crew followed procedures and how they were trained, according to a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport statement.

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