As an airline pilot, I’ve been closely watching the news on the Asiana Flight 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport.
Though it is much too early to speculate why the plane smashed in short of Runway 28L, here are some things the NTSB and FAA will be scrutinizing:
Mechanical — Were the fuel system and engines responding properly at the time of the accident? This initially appears to be very similar to the British Airways Flight 38 (Boeing 777) scenario in January 2008, where it was determined that ice in the fuel system caused the engines to not produce proper power on final approach, and the plane crash landed just short of the runway.
However, the BA Boeing 777 had Rolls Royce engines and Asiana Boeing 777 uses Pratt & Whitney engines, completely different fuel heating systems.
Airport factors — Initial reports indicate the Glide Slope portion of Runway 28L’s Instrument Landing System was NOTAM’ed (Notice to Airmen) out of service, as was the visual glide slope system due to construction. Not a huge deal but definitely a contributing factor complicating a visual, hand-flown approach.
Even in clear weather, most airline pilots “back up” their visual approach with the ILS glide slope guidance to help ensure a stabilized approach.
Physiological factors — Fatigue after an all-night, 10-hour plus long flight from Seoul, South Korea.
Crew experience and training — Some Asian airlines are growing faster than they can find experienced crew members. This long-anticipated pilot shortage will be affecting U.S. carriers soon.
ATC — It’s not uncommon at SFO and other busy airports for ATC (Air Traffic Control) to keep you up high (like 10,000 feet above the ground) over the airport, then clear you for what we call a “crowbar” approach, having you descend and turn rapidly onto the final approach.
This must be anticipated by the crew and completely stabilized (fully configured on approach airspeed and normal descent rate) by 1,000 feet above the ground.
Crew resource management — How well were the pilots communicating to each other regarding being too low and slow on short final? Were there cultural, rank and/or experience differences that prevented free and open communication between the pilots before it was too late?
Procedural — Did the crew attempt an Autoland with the runway ILS system out?
Automation — Had this crew become over-reliant on automation and lost critical proficiency at “stick and rudder” visual flying skills?
The NTSB and FAA will have answers very soon but not before ruling out every single remote possibility first. Depending upon which way the investigation goes, this accident could have huge ramifications for the future of the airline industry.
Juan Browne lives in Nevada City.