Confucius in the Cockpit, and Other Items to Read, and Ignore, on Asiana 214

Some modern professors have more to say about the recent mishap than an ancient sage does.

The investigation goes on, it will take a while before all the facts are in, and so on. In the meantime, here is a handy triage guide on what to read today:

1) The flying professors. One day after the Asiana 214 crash in San Francisco, Kenneth and Steven Hall -- two brothers who teach aerospace engineering, fly planes, and collectively blog as the Flying Professors -- offered an analysis that has held up well. 

As the obvious bolt-from-the-blue external explanations for the crash were being eliminated -- factors like engine failure, fuel-line freeze-up, powerful wind shear or other weather problem -- the Professors looked at the most basic evidence of what was happening immediately before the crash. They quickly noticed that the plane had "energy management" problems, and was not on a "stabilized approach" as it neared the runway. This analysis boils down to the idea that the plane first had too much "energy" as it descended for landing -- it was too high and was going too fast -- and then, after over-correcting, it ended up with too little energy and was too "low and slow" as it slammed into the seawall. As the days have gone on, most of the evidence has fit this hypothesis, including the reports that the flight crew attempted to "go around" -- to bring in full engine power and climb away for another approach -- just before impact.

I'll send you over to the Professors to fill in all the details, and to explain the significance of charts like this one, which shows the speed trends of the Asiana flight, in red, and another flight that landed safely, in gray.


Short version of what you're seeing above: note that the gray-line flight slows steadily until it is 4 miles from touchdown, then holds a more or less constant approach speed, while the speed of red-line flight doesn't ever stabilize.

2) Dazzled. According to a story in SFGate yesterday, one of the Asiana pilots has told investigators that "a flash of light temporarily blinded him 34 seconds before impact." 


Anything is possible, I wasn't there, we don't know everything the pilots were handling, and so on. Still I would bet heavily against this playing any part in final explanations of the crash. (And in fairness the pilot might just have been noting it as a fact, rather than saying that it mattered.) Everyone who has landed a plane has dealt with awkward-sunlight or occasional reflection issues, and anyone flying alone has done so without another professional pilot sitting in the other seat. And of course by the final 34 seconds the speed/stability issues would already have been evident. 


3) Cultures of flying. In the past two days I have received great sheaves of messages laying out "cultural" explanations for the crash. Usually these involve (a) systems of training in East Asian societies, which according to these analyses place too much stress on rote learning and too little on fluid adaptability, and (b) problems in "Cockpit Resource Management," or CRM, in East Asian airline crews, specifically and supposedly a reluctance of lower-ranking officers to challenge a superior who is making an obvious mistake.

I will look through these shortly and try to select a best-examples sampling of them. I should say that I start out being highly skeptical of this whole line of thinking. (Even though I think you can use aerospace ambitions as a revelatory lens for understanding a society and economy more generally.) If an (apparently) mishandled approach shows something about Korea -- or East Asia, or Confucius, or rote-learning systems -- then what do we make of the many thousands of Asian-piloted flights that land smoothly and safely throughout Asia every single day? On the other hand, anyone who has dealt with Asian students at Western universities has observed different patterns of study, of in-class questioning, of research styles, and so on.

More to come when I sift out these messages. For now, go to the Flying Professors.


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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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