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Safety board to rule on last year’s Asiana Airlines crash

June 23, 2014 - 12:05am

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal safety board Tuesday is expected to officially determine the cause of the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport last year, which raised troubling questions about pilot training and the complexity of modern aircraft flight systems.

At the widely anticipated hearing in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board will also examine emergency crews’ response to the accident. Amid the chaos after the crash, one of the passengers was run over twice by San Francisco Fire Department trucks, leading to questions about the department’s training and procedures.

The girl was one of three teenagers who died in the July 6, 2013, crash that also injured 174 passengers and crew.

The NTSB can only make recommendations to regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration. However, it says that more than 82 percent of its recommendations have been adopted “by those in a position to effect change.” Legally, its probable-cause finding is not admissible in court, said Michael Verna, a Walnut Creek attorney representing some crash victims.

“But from a safety standpoint, it’s very important,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of things happened we don’t want repeated.”

The crash landing, on a clear day, of a modern airliner that had no apparent mechanical or electronic problems has raised a troubling question: Have today’s highly computerized flight control systems become too complex for some pilots to manage, even as they rely on them more and more?

Flight 214 was inbound from Seoul, South Korea, with an experienced pilot being trained to fly the 777, and his instructor sitting in the right-hand seat. There were 12 crew members and 291 passengers, including 70 Chinese students and teachers headed to a summer camp.

As the aircraft passed over the San Mateo Bridge, about 5 miles from the runway, the pilot executed a series of commands that caused it to lose speed rapidly, a problem that the pilot discovered too late to execute a go-around for another try at landing.

That confusion in the cockpit has Asiana and Boeing squabbling about whether the plane gave adequate warning that it was losing speed, and about the complexity of the 777’s flight control system.

While a basic task of any pilot is monitoring an aircraft’s speed and altitude, experienced pilots say the complexity of the past couple of generations of airlines has added a significant amount of information to the basic ABCs of flying.

Testifying at a Dec. 11 NTSB hearing on the accident, Capt. Dave McKenney of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, said that even with his extensive flying experience, “I learned a few things today that I didn’t know” from the expert testimony.

Asiana said it believes the probable cause of the accident was its flight crew’s failure to monitor and maintain safe airspeed during the landing. A contributing factor, it acknowledged, was “the flight crew’s failure to execute a timely go-around” as required by company procedures. But the airline also faulted the Boeing 777’s complex automation controls for contributing to the accident.

Asiana claimed that “inconsistencies in the aircraft’s automation logic” led the crew to believe that the airplane was maintaining a safe airspeed. It said warnings from the aircraft that something was wrong were “inadequate.”

Boeing said in its own filing with the board that the accident would have been avoided “had the flight crew followed procedures and initiated a timely go-around” as the approach became increasingly unstable.