The investigation into the crash-landing of an Asiana Airlines flight at San Francisco’s airport last summer has highlighted problems with cockpit culture and the trainee pilot’s lack of confidence in his ability to safely land the Boeing 777.
Thousands of pages of investigative documents released during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday revealed that pilot Lee Kang Kuk harbored fears about landing safely while relying on manual controls and a visual approach, but he didn’t express them to his fellow crew members because he didn’t want to fail his training mission and embarrass himself.
The top official at the NTSB, which is probing the July 6 crash that killed three people and injured more than 200, said the agency is examining an apparent lack of communication in the cockpit and signs of confusion among the pilots about the jetliner’s elaborate computer systems.
Junior officers’ reluctance to speak up has been an issue in past accidents, though industry training has tried to emphasize that safety should come first.
“It’s never one thing. It’s always several hazards coming together with a catastrophic result,” said Tom Anthony, director of the aviation safety program at the University of Southern California. “You can see that the areas of concern to the NTSB are the effects of automation and also communication in the cockpit — whether (pilots) are communicating hazards to other crew members.”
Airlines will be forced to examine cockpit culture, Anthony said. The U.S. went through that decades ago and shook off a “captain-as-overlord” mentality, he said, and now some Asian airlines will have to make sure their training encourages even junior pilots to speak up about hazards.
Asiana officials declined to discuss cockpit culture or any confusion about the jet’s computer controls. But in a statement they expressed “sorrow for the loss of life and the injuries sustained in the accident” and said they are “taking the steps necessary to ensure that such an accident never happens again.”
Lee, a veteran pilot undergoing training on the wide-body 777, told investigators he had been “very concerned” about attempting a visual approach without instrument landing aids, which were turned off because of runway construction. A visual approach involves lining up the jet for landing by looking through the windshield and using other cues, rather than relying on a radio-based glideslope system that guides the aircraft to the runway at the proper angle.
Lee said he had worried privately before takeoff about his ability to handle the plane. But he told investigators he didn’t speak up because others had been safely landing at San Francisco International Airport under the same conditions. As a result, he said, “he could not say he could not do the visual approach.”
Another Asiana pilot who had recently flown with Lee told investigators he was not sure if he was making normal progress. That pilot said Lee, who had less than 45 hours in the 777 jet, did not perform well during a trip two days before the accident and he was “not well organized or prepared,” according to the investigative report.
“This pilot should never have taken off,” said attorney Ilyas Akbari, whose firm represents 14 of the passengers. “The fact that the pilot was stressed and nervous is a testament to the inadequate training he received, and those responsible for his training and for certifying his competency bear some of the culpability.”
During its approach, Asiana Flight 214 came in too low and too slow, then clipped a seawall, breaking off part of its tail. Neither Lee nor an instructor pilot in the cockpit had said anything when the first officer raised concerns four times about the plane’s rapid descent.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the agency has not yet determined the cause of the crash. So far, the investigation has not found any mechanical problems, although testing is ongoing, NTSB investigator Bill English said.
But documents released Wednesday cataloged other issues that could have played a role in the crash, such as a culture of not acknowledging weakness and of deferring to a higher-ranking colleague.
Lee told NTSB investigators he did not immediately move to abort the landing and perform a “go-around” because he felt that only the instructor pilot had the authority to initiate that emergency move.
Lee also said he had been blinded during a critical instant before the botched landing by a piercing light from outside the aircraft. NTSB investigators repeatedly asked about the light, but he was unable to pinpoint its origin or how it precisely affected him.