Skip to main content

Asiana crash: Who's to blame?

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NTSB votes Tuesday on cause of 2013 Asiana crash in San Francisco
  • Focus is on pilots' actions, automation
  • Pilots confused by auto-throttle modes
  • Will blame fall on pilots or designers?

(CNN) -- When federal safety investigators meet on Tuesday to determine the cause of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, they will have studied not only last summer's deadly accident but also a little-known incident years earlier.

In August of 2010, Eugene Francis Arnold, one of the Federal Aviation Administration's top test pilots, was descending into Seattle's Boeing Field when he leveled off to avoid another plane.

To his surprise, his speed fell 10 or 15 knots below his target speed, even though he believed the jet's automated speed control, or auto-throttle, was engaged.

Arnold pushed the throttle manually to increase the plane's speed and landed safely.

In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Who is to blame for Asiana crash?
Asiana: Pilot error was a factor in crash
NYT: Asiana blames software for crash
2013: Chilling new video of Asiana crash

Arnold, investigators believe, experienced the same type of "mode confusion" that caught Asiana's pilots off guard -- at a much lower altitude -- shortly before they plowed into the sea wall at San Francisco International Airport.

In both cases, the pilots believed they had selected modes of autopilot and auto-throttle that would "wake up" the auto-throttle if necessary, much as a car's cruise control kicks in when the car heads uphill. But they hadn't.

Complex system

There lies the big question before the National Transportation Safety Board when it meets Tuesday: Is Boeing to blame for creating a system so complicated that it befuddled even a top FAA test pilot?

Are the pilots to blame for not understanding the intricacies of the system and for failing to monitor the plane's speed?

Or is Korea-based Asiana Airlines to blame for not adequately training its pilots?

At a December hearing on the crash, experts told the safety board that while automation has vastly improved aviation safety, it has a flip side.

The same technology that makes it possible for pilots to fly coast to coast without touching a yoke are complicated and hard to master.

Thus, flying is getting easier and harder at the same time.

"Automation can be extremely supportive of human operators if it is designed properly," expert Nadine Sarter of the University of Michigan testified. "But we also have seen in a number of incidents (where) automation can actually get in the way."

"We have heard things like 'clumsy' automation, where automation ... helps the most when the pilot actually might need the help the least. But when they need the help the most -- in very time-critical conditions -- it might be very difficult for them to actually operate the automation," she said.

Different opinions

Not surprisingly, Asiana Airlines, the pilots union, and Boeing, which manufactured the 777 involved in the crash, have starkly different opinions of what role the pilots played in the crash, and the role of automation.

"The airplane and all airplane systems were functioning as expected prior to impact and did not contribute to the accident," Boeing said in a March submission to the safety board. The accident was caused by the pilots' failure to monitor and control the plane's airspeed and direction, and could have been avoided if they had initiated a timely go-around.

Asiana, meanwhile, blamed Boeing and the pilots. The pilots, just three months before the accident, had received "specific instruction" about the possibility the airspeed protection would be disabled in a certain mode, Asiana said.

The airline assigned blame to the pilots for not ensuring "a minimum safe airspeed," and Boeing for creating an autopilot system that led to an "unexpected disabling" of speed protections.

The warning system, the airline says, also did not give the pilots enough time to recover.

The Asiana Pilots Union blamed crew training, saying pilots were not trained that a combination of autopilot and auto-throttle modes would not prevent the plane from going too slowly.

"In this case, a key piece of information was not provided as part of the normal training program at Asiana," the union said.

Boeing said it was without fault.

"All airplane systems were functioning as expected prior to impact and did not contribute to the accident," it told the safety board.

Asked why the "hold" mode did not protect against dangerous drop-offs in speed, Boeing told the board, "To do this would violate (Boeing's) design philosophy: the pilot is the final authority for the operation of the airplane."

"If the auto-throttle automatically (switched mode to prevent an aerodynamic stall), it would be overriding the crew's selection," Boeing said.

Fly the plane manually

If pilots are confused by the technology, there is a simple solution: Fly the plane manually, Boeing said.

"This accident would have been avoided had the flight crew followed procedures and initiated a timely go-around," Boeing told the safety board.

What no one contests is that by the time the plane's captain recognized the plane was traveling too slowly, it was too late.

At 11 seconds before impact, the plane's low airspeed alert was triggered.

Eight seconds before impact, one of the pilots pushed the throttles forward. But it takes engines seven to eight seconds to spool up from idle to full power.

The plane slammed into the seawall, ripping off the landing gear, the tail and both engines. It spun 330 degrees in a shower of sparks and debris.

Of the 307 people on board, three died. Almost 200 were injured.

Asiana Airlines fined $500,000 for failing to help families

Asiana crash victims sue Boeing

Part of complete coverage on
Asiana Flight 214 crash
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Pilots botched the approach and landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco nearly a year ago, causing a crash that killed three people and injured 187 others, investigators concluded.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing to determine the cause of the 2013 Asiana Flight 214 plane crash.
January 19, 2014 -- Updated 1836 GMT (0236 HKT)
A group of passengers who were aboard an Asiana Airlines flight that crash-landed has sued aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
October 20, 2013 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The firefighter who accidentally ran over and killed a 16-year-old girl who survived the crash will not be charged in the case.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1129 GMT (1929 HKT)
The U.S. Department of Transportation fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to assist families following the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco in July.
July 9, 2013 -- Updated 0943 GMT (1743 HKT)
The two teen girls were close friends, each looking forward to a summer trip to California to improve their English.
July 9, 2013 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
After 10 long hours in the sky, the Jang children couldn't wait to get off the plane.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1034 GMT (1834 HKT)
I didn't expect my 5-year-old daughter to first learn about airplane crashes while we were in the air.
July 12, 2013 -- Updated 1042 GMT (1842 HKT)
Shortly after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed in San Francisco, passengers and witnesses pleaded with 911 responders to send help -- some frantically, some insistently.
Here's what we know about the crash landing, told through animation and graphics.
July 9, 2013 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
As a plume of black smoke billowed from Asiana Airlines flight 214 after it crash landed, images were captured of passengers collecting their carry-on items before evacuating.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
Inside the cockpit of the Airbus A380 at Le Bourget airport on June 12, 2005.
Pilots will need more cockpit training to become fully certified first officers for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 0600 GMT (1400 HKT)
Veteran flight attendant Lee Yoon Hye sensed something was awry as Flight 214 neared the San Francisco International Airport runway.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
As Asiana Airlines Flight 214 flew into San Francisco, the Boeing 777's 219 passengers didn't know that the man at the controls had never landed this kind of plane at this airport before.
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)
"Look at that one -- look at how his nose is up in the air."
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
Of the 307 people on board, only two are confirmed dead.
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
Nearly three hours after the crash, David Eun walked through customs at San Francisco International Airport. By then, the adrenaline rush was subsiding enough that he could begin processing the enormity of it all.
July 19, 2013 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Photos from the scene show a trail of debris down the runway and people waiting for their loved ones.
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 0019 GMT (0819 HKT)
Asiana Airlines had coped with a pair of deadly crashes over the past 20 years before a Boeing 777 crash landed in San Francisco and burst into flames on Saturday.
ADVERTISEMENT