Sir - The crew of the Korean Air Boeing 747 which crashed 5km (2.5nm) short of the runway at Guam on 6 August was executing a non-precision approach at night and in poor visibility.

The instrument-landing-system glidepath was known to be inoperative, and there were no visual-approach-slope indicators. There is evidence to suggest that the crew may have either misread the approach chart, or pressed on with a visual approach in low visibility.

Landing a heavy jet at night in these conditions, with the attendant hazard of no glideslope guidance, is to court disaster - demonstrably, so in this case.

Before long, we will see the introduction of airliners which can carry more than 600 passengers. No doubt these leviathans will be operated by the now-familiar two-pilot crew, and history will inexorably repeat itself with occasional crashes of colossal proportions. Pilot error, for whatever reason, will continue to be the main cause of most future aircraft accidents and the captain will inevitably be held responsible.

Among aircrew, it is well known that the professional attitude of the captain sets the stage for a relaxed, safe, flight as far as the other crewmembers are concerned (or, conversely, a stress-ridden flightdeck atmosphere). This is particularly relevant where cultural factors dominate. Perceived loss of face can silence any freedom of expression from flightdeck subordinates. The autocratic captain is still very much a fact of life in some airlines - both Asian and Western - yet, paradoxically, he can be the weak link on the flightdeck.

The solution may lie in having an equal-ranking captain as a third flightdeck crewmember during the take-off, descent and approach sectors of each flight. Historically, the approach is the higher risk factor. While there can be only one pilot in command, the observing captain would not be under the same rank or cultural restraints as a subordinate first or second officer. Ideally, he would remain silent unless the operational decisions by the pilot in command called for urgent intervention.

This could be a regulatory requirement for all aircraft capable of carrying 500 passengers or more. The additional costs involved would be minuscule when compared to those of a gigantic "jumbo" crash. Unfortunately, some ethnic cultures do not easily accept the principles of good crew-resource management. This will not change, and the presence of a second captain may be one solution to a known flightdeck human-factors problem.

John Laming


Victoria, Australia

Source: Flight International