Asiana 214: Airplane as Hero, and Other Analyses

The role of engineers, pilots, coaches, and God in the path toward disaster -- or safety.

Three weeks after the crash, I hear from several travelers that debris from Asiana 214 is still visible at SFO, apparently as investigators keep working through the clues. I am entering my last day-plus in my current Internet-impaired environment, so a few text-only updates.

1) The landing gear succeeded; they failed. From a reader in the Seattle area:
One factor not mentioned in your posting was the "failure" of the landing gear. That is, in an impact beyond the strength of the LG, they are supposed to detach from the wing without breaking the wing off or ripping open the fuel tanks.
They worked!  (before the frisbee pirouette )
Likewise the engines.  Unfortunately, one of them came to rest snuggled up to the fuselage, and was the ignition source for the post-evacuation fire....

I work for a certain aeronautical enterprise, and actually sent a congratulatory e-mail to the 777 designers...
2) Credit to the airplane as a whole. From another reader in the industry:
I agree that fatigue & a little bit of culture are the broken links in this chain of events. 

I have worked as an aircraft mechanic for United Airlines for [more than 25 years] at [a major US hub], and most of us at work believe the 777 is one of Boeing's finest achievements. The talk around the hanger has always been  the 777 "is so smart it's a very difficult aircraft to have an accident in," and unfortunately without that technology engaged on the aircraft that  is exactly what happened to flight 214. 

3) Other airplanes are strong too. A reader says the crash is a good occasion to remember a previous unusual landing with a happier overall outcome. This was the flight of the "Gimli Glider," whose 30th anniversary occurred last week:
It's a shame that more people in the US aren't aware of that remarkable feat. I live outside of Detroit and was able to watch a short documentary about it on CBC the other night.  Admittedly, I had never heard about this until watching it. The stories of the pilot, crew, and passengers on that flight was far more interesting than the perceived impending crash of Noah Gallagher Shannon's flight.

I'm including a link to the piece, it's about 20 minutes. You might need to use a proxy server in Canada to actually watch it.
Short version of this saga: because of various fuel-management miscalculations, an Air Canada Boeing 767 ran entirely out of gas over Ontario. The crew and passengers all escaped alive only because the crew glided the plane down safely, with no engine power at all, from an altitude of 35,000 feet. Eg:
Captain [Robert] Pearson was an experienced glider pilot, which gave him familiarity with flying techniques almost never used by commercial pilots. To have the maximum range and therefore the largest choice of possible landing sites, he needed to fly the 767 at the "best glide speed". Making his best guess as to this speed for the 767, he flew the aircraft at 220 knots (410 km/h; 250 mph). First Officer Maurice Quintal began to calculate whether they could reach Winnipeg. He used the altitude from one of the mechanical backup instruments, while the distance traveled was supplied by the air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, measuring the distance the aircraft's echo moved on their radar screens.
Lots more in the Wikipedia account and on the video.

4) Previous Asiana landing problems. A report on the SF Gate web site contends that even before the crash Asiana flights had a much higher-than-normal rate of "go-arounds," or aborted landing attempts, at San Francisco Airport. The sources for this claim aren't named, and FAA officials decline comment, although the Airport Director for SFO does go on-record as saying he had been concerned about Asiana's performance. 

In itself, a decision to "go around" on any given landing can be a sign of a competent and safety-conscious flight crew rather than the reverse. When learning to land a plane, you're taught to be ready to go around at any moment before touchdown, rather than trying to save a landing that is shaping up the wrong way. But a pattern of frequently needing to go around can obviously be a bad sign.

5) More on Confucius in the Cockpit. A Western reader who has worked for years in China previously sent in an account of a Dutch soccer coach who greatly improved the Korean national team by (in this reader's view) shaking up some Confucian concepts of hierarchy and group effort. Another reader disagrees:
I'd like to send a brief note in response to your post - specifically, the anecdote about Hiddink [Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach.] It is usually the case, in a situation in which a new authority changes the fortunes of a team (whether in sports or in business or wherever these inspirational movie theses appear), that some nugget of aphoristic truth can be gleaned from the turnaround, like so much dropping pitch. So it is with this one, in which Hiddink reverses the team's entire trajectory via an elemental ceremony that just so happens to represent the insertion of Western values into a team ruled by Eastern culture.

What instead turns out often to be the case is that this turnaround was actually managed through an intensive process of redesigning the team's (or department, or business, or what have you) strategy and tactical objectives, followed by an even-more intensive process of working with the team to relearn this new method of approaching competitors and the world at large. I'm sure one of the things you realize in these situations is that they rarely make for good cinema until they're condensed into the crystalline pitch-wisdom that we see in your anecdote.

Apologies for the soccer pun.

While I am loathe to claim that a practice of giving up shots on goal didn't doom the Korean squad pre-Hiddink (as a player myself once upon a time, I know how precious SOG are), I regrettably cannot bring myself to believe that a) this practice was the only problem the squad had, or that b) the problem was solved in a single ceremonial display of Hiddink's authority.
6) The 'Asoh Defense.' Back in 1968, a Japan Airlines plane bound for landing at SFO had a problem somewhat like Asiana 214's. The crew guided it through a properly stabilized approach --  but "landed" two miles short of the runway, right in San Francisco Bay. The circumstances were worse than in the Asiana case -- bad weather, and a ceiling of only 300 feet (versus clear skies three weeks ago). The outcome was better, in that no one was killed. The episode is famous in aviation lore for the "Asoh defense," the explanation offered by captain Kohei Asoh: "As you Americans say, I fucked up."

7) It's a "cockpit management" problem, not a national-culture problem. Another reader writes: 
On whether the crew's failure was a product of Korean "culture" or simply poor crew culture: Take a look at the NTSB report from the United Airlines DC-8 crash in Portland [Oregon] in 1978.  One of the safety recommendations stemming from that accident was to direct all air carriers to indoctrinate flight crews in principles of flight deck resource management.  It's my understanding that United took this recommendation to heart, and pilot Al Haynes credits that change with saving so many lives in the United DC-10 crash at Sioux City.

As Haynes later said:
"As for the crew, there was no training procedure for hydraulic failure. Complete hydraulic failure. We've all been through one failure or double failures, but never a complete hydraulic failure. 

"But the preparation that paid off for the crew was something that United started in 1980 called Cockpit Resource Management, or Command Leadership Resource Training ...All the other airlines are now using it. 

"Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was THE authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn't as smart as we thought he was. And we would listen to him, and do what he said, and we wouldn't know what he's talking about. And we had 103 years of flying experience there in the cockpit, trying to get that airplane on the ground, not one minute of which we had actually practiced, any one of us. So why would I know more about getting that airplane on the ground under those conditions than the other three. So if I hadn't used CLR, if we had not let everybody put their input in, it's a cinch we wouldn't have made it. 

"I don't know if any of you remember the old movie Marty, I kind of refer to that, it was Ernest Borgnine, and a group of his cronies, trying to find something to do on a Saturday night, and they said, what do you want to do Marty, and he said, i don't know, what do you want to do Joe, and that's kind of the way we flew the airplane now."
8) A final thought from Nevil Shute. A reader who is an active pilot says the episode reminds him of this line from Nevil Shute's autobiography, Slide Rule:
"Aircraft do not crash of themselves. They come to grief because men are foolish, or vain, or lazy, or irresolute or reckless. One crash in a thousand may be unavoidable because God wills it so - not more than that."