Coming in too low on a sunny July day, Asiana Flight 214 broke apart after hitting a seawall on approach to the San Francisco airport. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.
NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman told reporters Asiana 214 pilots reported they had the airport in sight and that they were cleared for the visual approach.
A visual approach means the pilot is expected to land manually - without the help of the Boeing 777’s advanced automation and ground radio beacons that keep the jet on a glidepath to the runway.
Flying computers - that’s how aviation experts describe today’s sophisticated airplanes, which often require little hands-on flying. But they say reliance on automation can lead to danger and confusion when pilots are forced to execute basic manual flying procedures. Some experts call it “automation addiction.”
Captain Vic Hooper says he wasn’t surprised by the crash and that it could have happened anytime since 2000. Hooper flew with Asiana, a South Korean airline, until 2011. As a captain on the 777, the same type of plane that crashed, he found many co-pilots unable to fly a visual approach.
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“I was pushing an officer to fly a visual approach, which he didn’t want to do and I said, ‘You need the experience’ and he goes, ‘No, I don’t have to know how to do this.’ ‘Look I know you don’t think you have to do this, but let’s just try. I’ll talk to you about it.’ He ended up leveling off too early.”
Map of Asiana and Korean Air incidents since 1990.
Captain Hooper took back the controls and landed the plane safely.
The FAA has told VOA that it has temporarily banned foreign pilots from using visual approaches in San Francisco. FAA officials took this action after seeing an increase in aborted landings, or go-arounds, by foreign pilots attempting visual approaches, including one by Asiana less than two weeks after the crash.
Also as a consequence of the crash, Asiana issued its own temporary ban - no first officers were to make any landings in the United States and Europe, and only in good conditions in South Korea and Southeast Asia. Landings were to be handled by captains.
Kwon Yong-bok, the man responsible for flight safety in South Korea, says the recent NTSB visit to Asiana headquarters concentrated on pilot education and training, and maintenance of the 777. But he says investigators should also look at the San Francisco airport.
“The airport instituted non-precision instrument approaches and this reflects that the airport itself is difficult for landing," says Kwon. "I acknowledge that rather than the aviation authorities, the airline companies provide various landing trainings, such as automation and manual landing.”
VOA asked Park Jong-kook, executive director of the Airline Pilots Association of Korea, about the amount of simulator training South Korean pilots receive for manual landings.
Map of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California.
“Well, it is difficult to say that it is adequate or not adequate because we do visual approaches once in every six months," says Park. "It could be extended to do one more, in six months, but other training is needed as well."
Park says the pilots' union is not demanding more training on visual approaches.
Aviation experts say more training would lead to better proficiency. Sources say Asiana flights routinely decline offers of visual approaches from air traffic controllers. Captain Hooper says his first officers always opted to fly an instrument landing approach to avoid the risk of error and subsequent reprimand.
“They rely on automation because there is concern about their continued employment and their success,” Hooper says.
Pilots tell VOA that air traffic controllers hesitate to approve visual approaches until they know who’s landing the plane.
A former Asiana pilot who spoke with us on condition of anonymity said, on one flight, he was circling a U.S. airport when he called air traffic control to tell them his plane had 23 minutes of fuel before he would be forced to divert to another airport. The controller asked him a few coded questions first to determine if he was American.
“He says, ‘Okay you’re cleared out of the holding pattern, you’re clear for the visual approach.’ Expats [expatriates] whose first language is English will let the tower know that they speak English and get much more expedited and better handling.”
Vic Hooper agrees.
“Unless they [air traffic controllers] heard a Western voice on the radio, [they] would never offer a visual approach unless there was not any choice.”
Bringing in Western expertise
Captain Hooper and other Western pilots were brought into South Korea by Boeing after a series of plane crashes in the 1990’s. After a 1997 accident on Guam, the South Korean government suspended 138 KAL flights every week for six months.
After a 1999 accident in England, Transport Canada issued a notice of suspension to Korean Air, but the airline implemented corrective actions and the suspension was never implemented. Korean Air and Asiana overhauled their training programs, to include more Western trainers.
In 2001, The Federal Aviation Administration dropped South Korea's International Safety Rating to a Category 2. The release said “Korea does not comply with international safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” a United Nations agency for aviation. The country corrected the safety concerns and was reinstated to Category 1 later that year.
During this time, Jim Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He directed the FAA to investigate South Korea’s safety record. VOA showed him examples of Asiana and Korean Air episodes over Canadian airspace starting five years after the category upgrade and lasting until a few months ago. They include language problems, flying at wrong altitudes, not following air traffic control orders or failing to communicate, deviations from flight plans, and more.
“I would be interested in trying to do the historic work if I was in the FAA, which you have already done, to see whether this is an isolated incident or whether there is a pattern here," says Hall. "Why are these steps that had been taken earlier, these automation issues, language issues and cultural issues are reappearing again in a fatal accident at the San Francisco Airport.”
The NTSB isn’t commenting on an existing investigation. Just hours after the crash, Asiana executives apologized for the crash. But, Asiana declined to be interviewed on the subject.
A statement by Korean Air said it had strengthened training programs with increased simulator time, new operations manuals, employee safety bonuses and more - steps the airline said are significant changes made over the past 15 years.
Additional reporting by Brandon Goldner in Washington, D.C., and Daniel Schearf in Seoul