Another Useful Video on the San Francisco Crash

What pilots see, when they are guiding the plane down toward the runway in a 'visual approach.'


Let me start by saying that the static screenshot above (not clickable) and the embedded video below, from which it comes, are not about Asiana flight 214 and what did or did not happen to it.

But the video is worth checking out because it gives an idea of what pilots mean when they refer to making a "visual approach." The clip is from a German series (via reader JZ, who is not German but Chinese) and it shows the crew of an enormous Lufthansa Airbus 380, as it comes in for a visual approach to runway 28R at San Francisco. That is the parallel runway -- R for right, L for left -- to runway 28L on which the Asiana plane came to grief. You see both of the runways, side by side, in the shot above. 

If you skip ahead to about time 5:45 of this clip, you'll see how such an approach looks from pilots' perspective. At that point, about two minutes from touchdown, the plane is about 2500 feet up and several miles out. Between there and the landing you'll see the way the crew works through its check lists, keeps an eye on the runway to judge the right glide path and another eye on the airspeed and other crucial indicators, and manages the gradual bleed-off of altitude-plus-airspeed that creates the least-disruptive transition between being in the air and being on the ground. You'll see that there are multiple back-ups and reminders -- crew members calling out altitude, automated announcements of distance to the ground, perhaps (though I didn't see it) and ILS signal loaded to display the proper glide-path too. But fundamentally a pilot is watching his way toward the touch-down point, which is what seems to have gone wrong in the Asiana case.

Logistics notes: If you click the playable video below, you'll see the whole approach -- with narration in the original German, which is how the embeddable version comes. If you'd like to get it in English, you can go here. The video doesn't prove anything about the cause of the Asiana crash, but it does a very good job of displaying how a normal good-weather approach over San Francisco Bay looks. And one more aircraft trivia note: if you listen to Air Traffic Control traffic, you know that large planes, like the Boeing 747 or 777, are identified as "heavy." "United 888 heavy, turn left heading 270." The Airbus 380 is so big that its extra identifier is "super," as in  "Lufthansa 454 super." 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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