Sticks and stones

The following article first appeared in the 23 July issue of Flight International

In the aftermath of the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash in San Francisco on 6 July, the largest pilots union in the USA has launched an ugly and unfortunate confrontation with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about public disclosure.
It is an ugly dispute, because original complaints by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) of mere unfairness immediately after the crash broadened a week later to charges that the NTSB is “sensationalising” the tragic event by releasing too much information too soon.
It is also an unfortunate confrontation, because ALPA’s claims do not hold up under scrutiny and risk confusing the real questions the public should be asking in the wake of such a critical event.
Let us review the timing of the NTSB’s disclosures on the flight 214 crash. The stricken Boeing 777-200ER was pictured on fire next to the runway, with its tail section, landing gear and one engine severed from the airframe.
Almost 24h later, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told reporters that a review of the flight data recorder showed the aircraft crossed the runway threshold “significantly” below the reference speed of 137kt, and a go-around was attempted about 1.5s before impact.
Meanwhile, Asiana had already acknowledged there was no evidence of mechanical error involving the aircraft’s flight controls or engines. Hersman also noted that the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder included no discussion between crew members of any systems or power anomalies.
Two days after the crash, Hersman filled in more details from the data recorder, which showed flight 214 first came into high, then too low, all the while losing speed but making no throttle inputs.
ALPA’s leadership believes the NTSB crossed a line, revealing information that may implicate the flight crew before all the facts are known.
Its criticism would have more credibility if the union was more consistent. Early disclosures by investigators that absolve a crew are never greeted by condemnation.
Consider the case of the British Airways 777-200ER that landed short at London Heathrow airport in 2008. In that case, UK invesigators revealed the day after the crash details that shifted the focus of the investigation from the crew to the aircraft’s engines. If ALPA had any objections to this, it chose not to voice them.
The balance between disclosure and discretion in a crash probe is important, but the NTSB did not “sensationalise” the event, whatever ALPA says.


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