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While major plane crashes in the United States are always big news, newspapers demonstrate virtually no understanding or insight into the causes of airline accidents.
The New York Times, allegedly the USA’s paper of record, is no better than its competitors. One would like to think that the Times would have a journalist on staff that knows something about aviation and would, as a consequence, offer its readership thoughtful explanations, or at least straight forward and honest explanations, of why man and flying machine occasionally combine to fail in quite dramatic and spectacular ways. The sad truth is that Times writers seem quite content to quote “expert” sources or paraphrase the National Transportation Safety Board, which doesn’t really write for the general public but rather for people in aviation who know how to interpret its findings, often by having to read between the lines.
The unhappy result of this uncritical approach, apart from confirming that investigative journalism is dead, as if further proof were actually necessary, is that the public remains uninformed or misinformed about why airline disasters happen.
In July of this year a Boeing 777 operated by Korea based Asiana airlines crashed while attempting to land at San Francisco International Airport. Three passengers were killed, scores injured and the aircraft destroyed. Late morning weather in San Francisco that day was clear, winds were light and there was nothing wrong with the airplane. Nevertheless, the three man cockpit crew managed to fly the 777 into the sea wall separating the runway from San Francisco Bay.
Two news stories about the accident appeared in the Times at the beginning of this month coinciding with NTSB hearings about the accident. While conceding that the cockpit crew failed to monitor the 777’s air speed on final approach, the Times emphasized the possibility that the pilots were confused about how the aircraft’s auto pilot controlled the aircraft, suggesting this confusion may have been the cause of the crash. To help the reader understand the situation the Times reporter wrote rather patronizingly that the problem was “akin to having trouble with the buttons on a remote control unit for a home entertainment system, but with greater consequences.”
One can certainly go along the writer’s “greater consequences” assertion, but the rest of the reporter’s “analysis” is total hogwash. Three pilots flying a visual approach in a perfectly good aircraft on a beautiful summer’s day land short of the runway and the problem is confusion about the auto pilot? Come on! There were three sets of eyes in the cockpit all of which failed to see that the 777’s air speed bled off from a standard approach speed of around 140 knots down to the 103 knots, just above the speed at which the plane’s wings cease generating enough lift to keep it airborne.
If the pilots ignored the Air Speed Indicator, just what were they looking at? On a visual approach the pilots are supposed to be flying the aircraft manually and looking outside the cockpit to insure that the aircraft’s glide slope (decent angle) is such that it will arrive safely on the runway. Had any of the pilots been looking through the wind screen as the 777 descended over San Francisco Bay they would have, or should have, noticed that the aircraft was going to come down short of the runway. Required solution: Immediately abort the approach and fly up and out of trouble. So what were the pilots looking at? What were they thinking? I don’t think anyone knows.
What went wrong in this accident, despite the gobbledygook published in the Times, is actually pretty straightforward: The Asiana cockpit crew failed to do the job of flying the airplane; they failed to monitor that most important and basic of all aircraft instruments, the Air Speed Indicator, and they failed to look outside the airplane to see that the 777’s angle of decent would result in a touch down well short of the runway.
After the crash the pilot who was flying the airplane told the NTSB that he was “very concerned” about his ability to fly a “visual approach with a heavy airplane” and that he “found flying the approach to SFO (San Francisco International Airport) very stressful.” What to conclude from this is ought to be pretty obvious; first, that despite having many hours of flying time, the pilot was not comfortable or confident actually flying the airplane to a landing manually, and, second, that this being the case, there is no way he should have been at the controls of the 777.
The skill to land an airplane relying exclusively on the eyes and the aircraft’s basic controls, the control stick and the rudder pedals, is so elemental that beginning students in flight schools flying Cessna 150s must be wondering just how the Asiana pilot ever got to be an airline Captain. For my own part, I have to wonder how and why the Times overlooked the obvious cause of this accident: the Asiana crew’s deficient judgment and flying skills.
The Times did jump on one minor aspect of the Asiana crash story, however. Some wag at the FAA gave the names of the Asiana pilots as Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo and Ho Lee Fuk which the paper duly denounced as sounding “suspiciously like Korean language stereotypes.” Sometimes the obvious is news worthy. Tu Fun Ne.
John Taylor lived and worked in the Middle East for a number of years as an archaeologist, banker and international civil servant. He worked for a major US bank in New York, Paris, Athens and London and is a graduate of the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge. He has a Commercial Pilot’s License and has been flying high performance and experimental sailplanes for 30 years.