Thursday, July 11, 2013

The flight and plight of Asiana Airlines 214

Asiana Airlines (OZ) flight 214 marks the first fatality on a Boeing 777 as a result of a hull loss.  The B777's impeccable track record is a product of decades of safety implementations, including the ability to evacuate all passengers on a full plane within 90 seconds with only half of the emergency exits being operable.  Needless to say, OZ 214 could have been much worse, and the loss of 2 lives, though tragic, does not nullify the fact that 305 passengers and crew members were preserved.  That's a 99.35% survival rate on a decimated B777 that went up in flames, thanks largely to some of the best first responders in the world and a group of courageous and selfless flight attendants.

Raw footage of OZ 214's failed landing

The focus now lies solely on the cause of the accident, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is hesitant to come to any kind of conclusion until all the facts are straight.  The operating pilot at the time of the accident was halfway through his training on a B777 with a measly 43 hours of total flight time and the co-pilot was on his first flight as an instructor.  Furthermore, this was the first time the pilot attempted a landing at San Francisco International Airport, which is known for having nothing but a seawall separate the San Francisco Bay from the runway.  But do these circumstances alone suggest pilot error?

You think you've seen it a 100 times already, but imagine battling that blaze as a first-responder and ensuring that all the passengers have been evacuated.
The cockpit recording recovered by the NTSB showed a series of possible maneuvers attempted by the pilots 2 1/2 minutes prior to landing.  At about 4,000 feet above sea level, the pilots noticed that they were coming in too high and made some adjustments.  After being cleared for landing, the pilots testified that autopilot was off and auto throttle, which regulates flight speed, was set to 157 mph, which is the minimum speed required for landing.  However, at an altitude of 200 feet, the operating pilot noticed that the plane was flying too slow and low, so he pushed the throttle forward in an attempt to gain altitude and speed.  Needless to say, it may have been too little and too late.  The other pilot even gave the excuse that his vision was impaired by a flash of light, which investigators have trouble pinpointing.  So one of the biggest questions surrounding the pilots' actions is whether or not auto throttle was functioning.  And if auto throttle failed to maintain the required landing speed, did the pilots make any reasonable effort to manually control the aircraft?

This photo gives a new definition to the crappiest seats in the house
Rightfully so, OZ 214's 12 flight attendants are being hailed as heroes for their valiant work in rescuing scores of lives.  2 of the flight attendants, both who survived, were even ejected from the plane as the aircraft's tail was decapitated by the seawall.  After a devastating impact followed by a chaotic 360-degree spin, the aircraft came to a stop between SFO's two longest runways, and the flight purser, who was also the last one off the incinerating plane, radioed the pilot for evacuation approval.  Surprisingly, the pilot waived evacuation and told the passengers to sit put.  But another flight attendant noticed flames outside, and immediately notified the pilot, who then ordered a full evacuation.  90 long seconds passed between the stoppage of the plane and the evacuation order, which is equivalent to the time it would have taken to fully unload a B777 with half the exits being operational.  During evacuation, one of the exit slide rafts malfunctioned and inflated within the plane, thus burying a flight attendant.  But her colleague came to her rescue with an axe and deflated the raft.  These are the flight attendants that you want on your flight: professional, courteous, courageous, selfless, and wise.  The same cannot be said about the pilots.

Flight purser Lee yoon-Hye: her name should be engrained under the Webster dictionary's definition of heroine.
Twitter photos showing passengers evacuate were available across the Internet at the site of the crash minutes after evacuation.  This begs another question: though it's not a written requirement, did the passengers make any effort to assist injured and disabled passengers?  The photos even show a number of presumably Chinese passengers carrying roller-bags.  Really?  The jumbojet behind you filled with injured passengers is burning to the ground and you took the time to recover your clothing bag?

The lady in turquoise: "Check out my souvenirs from China! You want to buy one?"
Mr. Xu Da, a production manager for a Chinese shopping website who was on OZ 214, boldly blogged, "I grabbed my bag as soon as it stopped.  My wife was very calm -- she even picked up the scattered stuff on the ground."  Fortunately, his wife also grabbed their child after picking up "the scattered stuff on the ground."  Mr. Xu later defended his actions over social media, stating "We didn’t block the aisle. Our passports and money were in the bags. If we didn’t grab them, we would have been in trouble."  He's right.  The other 304 passengers weren't in any trouble at all.  But here's my favorite social media post from a Chinese denizen:
"Foreigners (especially Americans) don't understand that in China, human lives are cheaper than money.  And this belief is deeply ingrained in the mentality of the Chinese government and its people."

Even if the NTSB's investigation discovers equipment malfunction, there is no doubt that some of the blame will still fall on the pilots.  When you have 307 lives in your hands, you can't depend solely on a computer to safely land a 250-ton aircraft.  The landing phase is by far the most dangerous segment of a flight, and the pilots should not have taken the aircraft's warning signs lightly and at the last second.  OZ's reputation and stock price will suffer, and the CEO will have plenty of questions to answer for.  Fortunately, South Koreans have honor and the entire country feels ashamed of the tragedy, even though it wasn't their fault.
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