Mistakes can happen

Guest CommentaryJuly 16, 2013 

I am a commercial pilot with 1,200 hours in single engine airplanes with an instrument endorsement. Operating an airplane is not real hard but it does require attention to processes and procedures.

It is not unusual to make a single mistake and it rarely results in a crash. It is well proven a chain of events can be deadly. Mistakes happen when you get complacent and don't pay attention to the details. With the information the National Transportation Safety Board and news media have provided so far it appears the pilots' mistakes caused the recent crash of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco Airport killing three people and injuring about 180 of the 307 people on board.

Let's start at the beginning. The "instrument landing system" (ILS) at the airport was out of service. The ILS provides horizontal and vertical guidance and would be required if you were in the clouds. The system is like a funnel, guiding you to within 200 feet over the runway. It is not needed on a clear day but it is used when it is available.

The autopilot would use the ILS controlling the descent. Since the ILS was out, a visual approach method can be used. Basically, when the pilot can see the airport they are allowed to fly on their own to set their speed and altitude to land. Now the pilot will establish a descent or glide slope. This can be calculated and large aircraft must do it to give you a smooth ride. In fact, the FAA requires pilots to establish a "stabilized approach." That means you must be lined up with the runway at the right altitude given the distance from it and at landing speeds. When stabilized only small corrections should be needed.

So what happened? This is just my opinion but the pilots made many mistakes. First, since the ILS was out, a GPS approach could have been set up to do the same thing. As reported the pilot had only 43 hours in this type of plane, 10,000 hours overall and it was his first landing at San Francisco. No doubt he received simulator training but there is no substitute for the real thing.

Most airlines require the use of automation. Hand flying the airplane is not real common except in the takeoff and final landing processes. He started his descent too late or too high and set up his glide slope too high meaning a higher descent angle. He failed to fly the proper speed. He failed to recognize he had not achieved a stabilized approach.

The flight crew is to work as a team and that failed too. His co-pilot was an instructor pilot but failed to monitor his student. The airplane could weigh 500,000 pounds. Changing the motion of such a heavy plane requires power and time. This is not a little sports car. The backup pilots sitting in the jump seats also had a duty to monitor the planes operation and a duty to say something if procedures were not followed. Both pilots and maybe the pilots in the rear failed to monitor the airspeed and location relative to the runway missing the standard touchdown point by 1,460 feet.

The pilots failed to initiate a "go-around" in time to avoid a crash. The more you fly and especially if you fly for hire, going around seems to be an ego crusher. It may be construed as unprofessional by some with explanations to bosses.

Air traffic controllers responsible for landing aircraft should have noticed the plane flying very low. Now I know from experience there are other things that could have helped set the pilot up for failure — not resetting the altimeter, ATC not allowing the plane to descend when needed, distractions like other aircraft and cockpit distractions.

Mechanical issues have not been ruled out but at this point it looks like a perfectly fine aircraft was flown into the ground.

I count 11 mistakes. If any one of these mistakes was corrected, a crash would not have occurred. We pilots learn from the errors of others. I expect some FAA rules and training to be changed.

Just remember driving on Highway 41 at night in the rain is the most dangerous thing you might ever do. That is the level of attention required by every pilot, especially when flying sophisticated aircraft.

"If any one of these mistakes was corrected, a crash would not have occurred."

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