Back to Asiana 214

On a light-wind, clear-skies day, a team of professional pilots flew a normally functioning airplane smack into the runway. What have we learned about the cause?

Let me try to work through a few of the leads, responses, red herrings, and insights that readers have sent in since the crash two weeks ago.


1) An illuminating video recreation. Here is a useful animation of the difference between a normal "stabilized" approach to San Francisco's runway 28L, and what can be deduced about flight 214's path. 
 

A professional pilot added this commentary about the clip:
This is the best video I've seen so far demonstrating the cost of a flat approach. The only misleading element is the airspeed differential, probably to keep the two images in close proximity. The dramatically slower approach speed of the aircraft would have better highlighted the flaw, not just in altitude above the ground but the equally dangerous decreasing airspeed. The properly positioned "ghost" aircraft would have left the doomed Asiana far behind - running out of altitude, airspeed, and options.

If your own flight instructor never told you - get on the proper descent profile as soon as possible. Being high or low is a formula for a more challenging landing. Waiting to correct for being high, low, slow, fast, or off center means "going to school" much too late - no rodeos required. With this international route, a good crew has been efficient for the last 12 to 14 hours and nine time zones of circadian shift, so a stabilized approach is the primary consideration during the final minutes of flight.

2) What's wrong with "Confucius in the cockpit" / "this is how Asians fly" hypotheses. If you've been following this topic, you've seen countless circulated emails from Western pilots alarmed at what they have seen at Asian, and especially Korean and Chinese, flight schools and airlines. I don't have time to fish these all out at the moment. I will say that if you'd like a bracing retort, the place to start is with the "Ask a Korean" site, notably this post (which goes right at Malcolm Gladwell-ism) and then this omnibus followup, including a reply from Gladwell. 

When I can I will try to give a Solomonic pronouncement on winners and losers in this dispute. Two-sentence preview: Of course Asian-style education and culture can lead to distinctive dynamics in the workplace or in an airline cockpit. But I'm skeptical of moving directly to  civilizational interpretations of events with more modest potential explanations. (OK, a third sentence: At face value it appears that for some reason there was a failure of basic flying skills here, but just the same appeared to be true in the 2009 Colgan crash in Buffalo, whose two home-grown American pilots had no known connection to Confucianism.)

3) The NASA view of culture in the cockpit. One of the seminal papers in this discipline, by a NASA official back in 2000, is available in a grainy but legible scanned version of the original printed pages, here. Worth reading in light of the Asiana discussions.

4) 'Children of Magenta.' In the piloting world, this crash has revived a perennial debate on whether pilots are becoming so dependent on automation that they have lost basic "stick and rudder" flying skills. This is the aviation analogy of the old debates about whether 1960s-era calculators were destroying people's ability to do math, or whether today's GPS systems are destroying a sense of direction. The difference is that pilots in most cases still actually have to land the plane. 

A classic discourse on perils of automation is enjoying new popularity now. It's a 25-minute lecture called "Children of Magenta" (with autopilot and GPS systems, the plane is often programmed to follow a magenta-colored line). Here you go:


There's more in the queue, but that is what I have time for now. 

Essay-question topic for bonus credit: precisely because commercial airline accidents have become so rare, with the "normal" causes of accidents being eliminated one by one, the accidents that do occur almost always involve improbable, complex, surprising, or puzzling combinations of circumstances. In much of life, the medical-diagnostic nostrum that "when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras" makes sense. Accidents on major airlines these days are nearly all zebras.

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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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