Asiana: the facts so far

The ill-fated Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER had flown more than ten hours across the Pacific from Seoul, Korea, landing at San Francisco on 6 July. It carried two crews – four pilots in total – to allow periods of rest for each of them during the flight.

The flight was uneventful, and the San Francisco weather was very good when the crew began their descent  toward the destination airport.

They were cleared for a visual approach to runway 28L. The crew would have known from NOTAMs (notices to airmen) before departing Seoul that
the instrument landing system (ILS) glideslope signal on runway 28L at San Francisco airport was not operational because of work to improve the runway overrun safety area, hence they should have been expecting to fly a visual approach to it.

Runway 28L, for which they were aiming, has precision approach path indicators (PAPIs), visual devices that show red lights if the aircraft is below the ideal approach slope, white if it is above,  and a mix of red and white if it is on the ideal slope.

Amateur video of the aircraft approach and crash shows that the aircraft had adopted an unusually high nose attitude during short final approach, an indication that a descending  aircraft in landing configuration is flying too slowly. It was also below the ideal glideslope angle.

This contrasts with evidence suggesting that, earlier in the final approach, the aircraft had been high and fast. The autopilot is believed to have been disconnected at 1,600ft.

The National Transportation Safety Board chairman, Deborah Hersman, has confirmed that, on short final approach, the aircraft had the gear down and flaps set to 30deg, but it was flying significantly less than its target speed of 137 knots, and that the engines were at idle power. If, indeed, it was initially high on the approach a minute or two earlier, that might account for the idle power setting, but there are many variables to consider here, including whether the autothrottle was engaged at the time.

She also confirmed that one of the crew voiced  concern about the low airspeed 7s before the first impact. About 4s before impact the stickshaker stall warning activated noisily, and one of the crew called for a go-around 1.5s before impact.

The engines responded to  the crew’s demand for power, said Hersman, but it was too late. The tail section slammed into the sea wall  well short of the runway threshold, the tail and undercarriage broke off, and the rest of the aircraft bounced across the airfield surface, coming to a halt next to the runway touchdown zone, having suffered severe damage.

A fire started and spread to the fuselage. There were more than 300 people on board, about fifty were seriously injured, and two people are known to have died.

Hersman and the airline have confirmed there was no known technical problem with the aircraft, and the crew had not discussed any problems on approach.  

She said that, at this stage, there is no apparent connection between this accident and the 2008 crash of a British Airways 777 that came down short of the runway at London Heathrow airport because its engines failed to respond to the pilots’ demand for power. The BA accident involved ice in the fuel lines, but that was in England in January, whereas the Asiana 777 faced a temperature of 18degC on the ground, which would have made approximately the last 10,000ft of its descent in air that was above the freezing point of water.

Hersman reported that, at this stage, she cannot confirm which of the four pilots were occupying the two pilot seats during the landing, but she expects to provide that information soon. The four flightcrew included a captain under instruction, a training captain, a third captain, and the first officer.

Our Singapore-based reporter Mavis Toh has reported Asiana as saying that the pilot flying only had 43h on type, although a flying hours total of nearly 10,000h including time on 747s, so it makes sense that this was the captain under instruction. If that is confirmed, the training captain would normally – but not definitely – be occupying the right hand seat.

The Asiana crash is the first 777 accident in which there have been any fatalities.

Now follows a video in which I explain some of the issues surrounding this flight. Beware that, in the video, I incorrectly state the landing runway is 28 Right, when in fact it was 28 Left. I think that’s the only error!

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2 Responses to Asiana: the facts so far

  1. Gary Williams 17 July, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Thanks David, it has been reported elsewhere which pilots were in the two pilot seats but if the NTSB are saying they can’t confirm it then I guess we should await their statement.

    The two main questions for the air accident investigators appear to be
    1. why did the aircraft slow to such a speed on approach?
    2. why was this issue not identified and acted upon by the flight crew before the situation became unrecoverable?

    Experienced pilots don’t often crash airworthy modern aircraft in good flying conditions so there are some interesting lessons to be learned.

  2. David Connolly 17 July, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Sir Learjet, I salute your long overdue video updating of your website, you lazy bastard.
    I am friendly with Capt ES Noe, Asiana’s B-744 and B-777 chief pilot. The OZ/AAR 214 KSFO disaster is utterly shocking to me. I forward a United B-744′s F/O’s holding short, eye witness account.

    On July 6, 2013 at approximately 1827Z I was the 747-400 relief F/O on flt 885, ID326/06 SFO-KIX. I was a witness to the Asiana Flt 214 accident. We had taxied to hold short of runway 28L at SFO on taxiway F, and were waiting to rectify a HAZMAT cargo issue as well as our final weights before we could run our before takeoff checklist and depart. As we waited on taxiway F heading East, just prior to the perpendicular holding area, all three pilots took notice of the Asiana 777 on short final. I noticed the aircraft looked low on glidepath and had a very high deck angle compared to what seemed “normal”. I then noticed at the apparent descent rate and closure to the runway environment the aircraft looked as though it was going to impact the approach lights mounted on piers in the SF Bay. The aircraft made a fairly drastic looking pull up in the last few feet and it appeared and sounded as if they had applied maximum thrust. However the descent path they were on continued and the thrust applied didn’t appear to come soon enough to prevent impact. The tail cone and empennage of the 777 impacted the bulkhead seawall and departed the airplane and the main landing gear sheared off instantly. This created a long debris field along the arrival end of 28L, mostly along the right side of 28L. We saw the fuselage, largely intact, slide down the runway and out of view of our cockpit. We heard much confusion and quick instructions from SFO Tower and a few moments later heard an aircraft go around over the runway 28 complex. We realized within a few moments that we were apparently unharmed so I got on the PA and instructed everyone to remain seated and that we were safe.

    We all acknowledged if we had been located between Runways 28R and 28L on taxiway F we would have likely suffered damage to the right side aft section of our aircraft from the 777.

    Approximately two minutes later I was looking out the left side cockpit windows and noticed movement on the right side of Runway 28L. Two survivors were stumbling but moving abeam the Runway “28L” marking on the North side of the runway. I saw one survivor stand up, walk a few feet, then appear to squat down. The other appeared to be a woman and was walking, then fell off to her side and remained on the ground until rescue personnel arrived. The Captain was on the radio and I told him to tell tower what I had seen, but I ended up taking the microphone instead of relaying through him. I told SFO tower that there appeared to be survivors on the right side of the runway and they needed to send assistance immediately. It seemed to take a very long time for vehicles and assistance to arrive for these victims. The survivors I saw were approximately 1000-1500′ away from the fuselage and had apparently been ejected from the fuselage.

    We made numerous PAs to the passengers telling them any information we had, which we acknowledged was going to change rapidly, and I left the cockpit to check on the flight attendants and the overall mood of the passengers, as I was the third pilot and not in a control seat. A couple of our flight attendants were shaken up but ALL were doing an outstanding and extremely professional job of handling the passenger’s needs and providing calm comfort to them. One of the flight attendants contacted unaccompanied minors’ parents to ensure them their children were safe and would be taken care of by our crew. Their demeanor and professionalism during this horrific event was noteworthy. I went to each cabin and spoke to the passengers asking if everyone was OK and if they needed any assistance, and gave them information personally, to include telling them what I saw from the cockpit. I also provided encouragement that we would be OK, we’d tell them everything we learn and to please relax and be patient and expect this is going to be a long wait. The passenger mood was concerned but generally calm. A few individuals were emotional as nearly every passenger on the left side of the aircraft saw the fuselage and debris field going over 100 knots past our aircraft only 300′ away. By this point everyone had looked out the windows and could see the smoke plume from the 777. A number of passengers also noticed what I had seen with the survivors out near the end of 28L expressing concern that the rescue effort appeared slow for those individuals that had been separated from the airplane wreckage.

    We ultimately had a tug come out and tow us back to the gate, doing a 3 point turn in the hold short area of 28L. We were towed to gate 101 where the passengers deplaned. Captain Jim Abel met us at the aircraft and gave us information he had and asked if we needed any assistance or hotel rooms for the evening. Captain xxxxx and F/O xxxxx went to hotels and I went to my home an hour away in the East Bay.

    And can you remember this KSFO Flaps 10 takeoff with Flaps 20 V-speeds of July 30 1971 ?
    I commence my B-777 Type Rating course in KMIA on July 25 2013.

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