Asiana Airlines: What Caused the San Francisco Air Crash?

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If an aircraft stalls, it can fall out of the sky. Image by helen Krasner

Why Did the Pilots Not Take Action to Prevent a Stall?

This is the $64,000 question, the answer to which we don’t know at present.

Airspeed is actually produced by both the speed of the aircraft through the air plus the speed of the wind over the wing, so that sudden alterations in wind speed (windshear) can be responsible for a stall.

At this time, however, there has been no suggestion in any of the reports that this is what happened here. The pilot at the controls during the flight, Lee Kang-kuk, was making his first attempt to land a 777 at San Francisco’s airport, although he had flown there 29 times previously on other types of aircraft. However, there was a highly experienced senior pilot in the other seat, and all airliners have dual controls.

It is not, at present, clear whether the senior pilot tried to abort the landing. It is also not clear whether the pilots were ‘hand flying’ the plane, or using some form of automatic pilot, which could perhaps make a difference, although it should not.

The pilots’ command of English might also have affected their affected their understanding of what was going on; there have been reported incidents of pilots not understanding auditory commands such as ‘pull up’. However, this is mere speculation at present, and again, it should make little difference.

There is also the possibility that what is known as ‘human factors’ came into play here, such as the co-pilot not wanting to criticise an older or apparently more experienced colleague who was about to make a mistake. Again, this sort of thing has caused accidents in the past.

Will We Ever Know What Actually Happened?

Authorities investigate every air crash in great detail. Once they have interviewed pilots and done some additional research, it is likely that we will better understand what happened. Meanwhile, the cause of the crash appears to be some element of ‘pilot error’ or in other words, human error – rather than any kind of mechanical failure. Perhaps this should be seen as proof that however experienced professionals are, occasionally they can still get things wrong. Food for thought, perhaps…

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