Nobody wanted to be rude: how good manners doomed Asiana flight 214
Matthew L. Wald, NY Times, December 12, 2013
Washington—In the minutes before Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, one of the three pilots in the cockpit called out three times that the plane was descending too fast. But none of the pilots noticed that they were flying the plane too slowly until shortly before it hit the sea wall at the end of runway 28 Left.
Inexperience and Korean culture played a role in the way the pilots handled the landing, according to documents released on Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The captain, Lee Kang Kuk, who was flying the plane, told investigators that any of the three pilots could have decided to break off the approach, but for “the low-level people”, including himself because he was being supervised by an instructor pilot, “it’s very hard,” he said.
He also said that as the plane approached he was momentarily blinded by a bright light on the runway, possibly a reflection of the sun, but that he would not wear sunglasses because among Koreans that would be impolite.
The documents indicated that there was confusion among the crew about how the Boeing 777’s auto throttles worked. Lee had just 35 hours experience in that model, and in an interview with investigators he appeared to have confused some details of the automation system with that of the Airbus A320, with which he had extensive experience.
The first mention that the plane was descending too fast came about a minute before impact, in English, which the crew was using on approach, according to a transcript of the flight data recorder. The second mention was also in English, but the third, about nine seconds after the first, was in Korean, a clue in the transcript about the intensity of the comment.
No one said the plane was too low until the last 30 seconds of the flight. Three seconds before impact, Lee made a comment indicating an attempt to re-engage the engines and abort the approach. The plane was then at an altitude of less than 10 metres
The 777 hit the sea wall, breaking off the back of the fuselage. Despite a dramatic cartwheel and then a cloud of dust and smoke, only three passengers died.
Of 291 passengers, 199 were transported to hospitals as were three of the four pilots on board and 10 of the 12 cabin crew members.
One of the passengers was killed by a fire truck about 23 minutes after the crash. Investigator interviews with Asiana personnel indicate that two flight attendants were trapped when emergency slides inflated inside the cabin.
Investigators have said they did not find any malfunctions on the plane.