Today's 777s-in-Peril Update: Asiana 214, MH 370

Lawyers offer their contention of why a pilot is not to blame for one accident. A former NTSB investigator directs blame at the pilot in another.
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How a plane looks just before touchdown into a strong crosswind. This is hard. The Asiana landing at SFO should have been easy. ( YouTube )

1) Asiana 214. If you'd like to see professional pilots landing big airplanes, under difficult circumstances, with hundreds of lives at stake, watch any 20-second portion of this video below, taken at Dusseldorf airport during a very strong crosswind. Even the first 15 seconds will give you the idea. Or the elegant maneuver by an Air Berlin crew from 1:40 to 1:55.

What you'll see in all cases are pilots executing the familiar "crab-into-kick" procedure for crosswind landings. First the plane "crabs" -- it approaches at an angle, to keep its direction of flight aligned with the runway. Then, just as the plane is about to touch down, the pilot "kicks" the rudder to align the airplane itself with the runway. That allows the plane to land without putting impossible cross-stress loads on the landing gear.

Some of the landings in this clip are more precise than others, and some of that variation is beyond the pilots' control, depending on last-minute gusts and shifts in wind. But all of them show the proficiency expected of professional flight crews. 

Watch a little of that, including artful landings of Boeing 777s, and then consider the claim from Asiana airlines' lawyers, as reported yesterday in the NYT, that autopilot software was somehow to blame for the crash of an Asiana 777 at SFO last year.

Remember that this crash -- which killed three people, injured many more, destroyed the airplane, and shut down the airport for a time -- happened on a clear day, with light winds, in what would be considered the very most benign flying conditions. Remember that according to cockpit recordings, other members of the flight crew were warning the captain that he was mis-flying the approach and letting the plane get too "low and slow." And consider that in the two decades of the 777's operation, with many hundreds of thousands of landings worldwide by the more than 1000-strong airplane fleet, there appear to have been zero reported incidents of autopilots causing the plane to land short of the runway. You can read a 777 accident/incident list here. The one other episode involving auto-throttles and landing problems, in 2008, was traced to ice that obstructed the fuel system and kept the engines from responding properly. This was not a factor for the Asiana at SFO.

Of course we shouldn't prejudge the legal process. And if you were a lawyer for Asiana, you'd probably try to push this "the autopilot made me do it" argument too. But, c'mon.

[For the record, I am an admirer of NYT reporter Matthew Wald, but -- as he knows -- I disagree with the implication of the lead of his story. It was this, with emphasis added:

While the world has been fixated on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Korean carrier involved in the crash of a different Boeing 777, the Asiana flight into San Francisco last July, raised design issues on Monday that put another question mark over the model of jetliner.

The Asiana and Malaysia episodes have absolutely nothing in common, and from my perspective nothing in the Asiana lawyers' filing "puts another question mark" over one of the world's most widely used and best-safety-record airplanes. To me, this connection is like saying that a car-jacking put "another question mark" over a certain model of car, if that car had also experienced carburetor problems.]

2) Malaysia 370. No theory of the plane's disappearance makes sense. But I've mentioned several times that I thought the "Chris Goodfellow scenario" required few logical leaps than most. Goodfellow, a Canadian who now lives in Florida, has hypothesized the following sequence: a sudden inflight emergency, followed by a turn back toward airports in Malaysia, followed by a still-unexplained incapacitation of the crew, and a still-unexplained flight out over the ocean.

If you would like to see an argued-out (rather than merely speculative) version of a contrary hypothesis, check out this on Leeham News and Comment. The item is based on an interview with Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, who argues (a) that the wreckage might well never be found, and (b) that the most likely scenarios, in his view, involve one of the pilots deliberately bringing the plane down. Sample:

Feith believes there will be several plausible theories that all will point to a deliberate act by someone with intimate knowledge of flying the Boeing 777, most likely one of the pilots.

Too many deliberate actions maneuvering the airplane and turning off communications systems occurred to have any plausible mechanical failure explanation. He completely discounts theories that a fire, either in the electronics bay or involving lithium-ion batteries being transported in a cargo bay, disabled the airplane.

He also discounts a theory that there was a depressurization that incapacitated the pilots and allowed the 777 to meander over the skies of the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia and the Strait of Malacca before turning south 3,000 miles over the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.

No one knows what happened, and it's possible that we may never, or not for a very long time, get conclusive evidence one way or another. But this article is worth considering as a strong counter to the inflight-emergency view.

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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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