Asiana Crash Probe: Is Autopilot Making Flying Less Safe?
As the Asiana Airlines jet neared Los Angeles International Airport, Captain Vic Hooper told his Korean co-pilot to make a visual approach—that is, fly the plane manually instead of letting automation do the work. The co-pilot froze, leaving the plane too high and off course, says Hooper about the incident, which occurred several years ago. Hooper, a former Delta Air Lines captain who flew for the Korean carrier from 2006 to 2011, says he had to take over the controls to get the Boeing 777 back on track. “I don’t need to know this. We just don’t do this,” Hooper says the Korean co-pilot told him later, explaining why he balked at a maneuver that’s second nature to most U.S. airline pilots.
As U.S. investigators look into what caused the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco on July 6, they are examining the manual flying skills and cockpit teamwork among the pilots of the 777. Three teenage girls from China died in the accident; two other passengers remain in critical condition.
Pilots were being told by air traffic controllers to use visual approaches the day of the accident because San Francisco International Airport’s glide slope indicator, which helps pilots line up the correct path to the runway, wasn’t functioning. The Asiana plane came in too low and almost 40 miles an hour slower than the target approach speed when its landing gear and tail struck a seawall short of the runway, according to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman. Lee Hyo Min, an Asiana spokeswoman, declined to discuss the manual flying skills of its pilots, citing the NTSB investigation.
Three aviators who flew for Asiana, or helped train crews in Korea, said in interviews that the Korean pilots they flew with were intelligent and well trained on automated systems—but rarely flew manually. 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, a former Delta pilot who flew 777s for Asiana for almost four years until 2009, say they also noticed that many Korean pilots struggled with visual approaches. “You will never hear an Asiana pilot request a visual approach,” says Hooper, who has logged more than 25,000 hours in the cockpit.
Visual landing is one of the first skills an aviator in the U.S. learns, whether as a civilian practicing on single-engine planes with an instructor at a small airport or as a student pilot in the military. In both cases, pilots make dozens or hundreds of unassisted landings before graduating to more sophisticated aircraft, according to Aimer. Civilians in Korea rarely study to become pilots because the country doesn’t have a robust network of noncommercial airports, as the U.S. does. Most nonmilitary pilots hired by Korean airlines are sent to flight school by the carrier, Aimer says. And even among those who were recruited from the military, comfort with manual flying is unusual. “They know their procedures almost better than we did as instructors,” says 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.”
David Greenberg, a retired Delta executive who was hired by Korean Air to bolster its safety and pilot training following three fatal crashes in the late 1990s, says he too observed that Korean pilots were sometimes deficient in hand-flying planes, though he does not believe they were worse than pilots elsewhere in the world.
The NTSB investigation into a 1997 Korean Air-Boeing 747 crash in Guam that killed 228 of the 254 passengers on board found that the co-pilot and flight engineer failed to monitor the captain, who had gone too low. The safety board also deemed Korean Air’s training “inadequate.” Korean Air has had a “stellar” safety record since its last fatal accident in 1999, says Penny Pfaelzer, the company’s Phoenix-based spokeswoman. The company brought in outside pilots and managers and revamped its safety and training, she says: “They’ve established training that is the gold standard in Asia.”
Flying skills have eroded globally in an era of heavily automated jets, according to Robert Mann, a former airline executive who runs consultant R.W. Mann in Port Washington, N.Y. 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,” he says. Though 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 A330’s automation, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis.
Asiana went 18 years without a fatal crash until 2011, when one of its cargo planes caught fire while in flight, according to Aviation Safety Network, a Web-based database. In this month’s crash, the airline’s pilots didn’t attempt to abort their landing in San Francisco until less than 3 seconds before it struck the seawall, according to the NTSB’s Hersman. While the pilot at the controls had almost 10,000 hours of flight experience, he had flown only 35 hours in the widebody 777. A management captain making his first flight as an instructor was supervising from the co-pilot’s seat. Another pilot who was on board to give the primary pilots a rest break was seated in the rear of the cockpit. From the time the plane descended through 500 feet, the point at which Boeing advises pilots to abort if they aren’t certain the landing is set up properly, none of the crew expressed any concern until the final seconds before the crash. The Korean government has announced that it will investigate whether the crew followed procedures and how they were trained.