The Tragic Glide Path of Asiana Flight 214

by Jamie R. Lebovitz | July 10th, 2013

Airline travel is now extraordinarily safe.  Unlike car or motorcycle crashes, or fatalities with small amateur-flown airplanes, first-world airline crashes are now so rare that they usually don’t fit a known pattern.  Commercial airline crashes typically occur when multiple malfunctions or errors occur at the same time, which means commercial accident investigations are complex endeavors involving many different types of experts.  Asiana Flight 214 is likely to be no different, but the answers may come more quickly than in many other cases.  For one, because the flight crew is still alive (as are most of the passengers), investigators will have the benefit of first-hand accounts of the crash — something that, sadly, air crash investigators often must do without.  As we wait for the investigation to reveal the details, though, there’s a reasonable range of possibilities to consider based on the information available to date.

In my discussions with pilot experts who are experienced in analyzing air disasters, and in reviewing the news as it develops, certain uncontroverted facts have already come to light in the aftermath of the Flight 214 tragedy:

  • The airplane undoubtedly “landed short” of the runway.
  • The skies were clear, the winds were light, and there appeared to be no challenging weather conditions.
  • There is no report so far of wind-shear circumstances that might have suddenly pushed the airplane off its intended glide path.
  • There is no report or evidence so far of engine failure or other mechanical/fuel-flow problems that might have kept the airplane from reaching the runway; in fact, NTSB news reports already indicate that both engines were responding normally and making power at the time of impact.   At the same time, the aircraft apparently was flying well below target airspeeds for landing in the moments before the crash.
  • The Air Traffic Control tapes released so far are full of  “emergency!” and “help on the way!” discussions after the plane’s impact, but there appears to be no mention of problems before the plane crashed.
  • The glide-path indicators for the “Instrument Landing System” on  runway 28L, where the plane was headed, had been out of service since June, because of construction at the airport. This meant that the pilots would not have had a dashboard-instrument indication of the proper path to follow through their descent; they would have to judge with their eyes.  In theory that shouldn’t matter; every pilot everywhere originally learns to land a plane on a “visual” basis. But it’s a complication here.
  • The flying pilot was inexperienced with flying the Boeing 777 and had never flown this airplane type into San Francisco airport.
  • The Captain elected to allow an inexperienced pilot to fly the approach to San      Francisco despite the fact that the ILS (instrument landing system) was not operational, making for a more challenging approach and landing.
  • The flight crew elected to attempt a ‘go around’ or rejected landing, however, by the time that decision was made, the aircraft was too low, at too low an airspeed to enable this procedure to be conducted safely.
  • There was likely a lack of monitoring of airspeed and rate of descent by the non-flying pilot given the fact that the aircraft was flying in the final seconds, well below the speed necessary to keep the airplane airborne(sometimes referred to the as the stall speed)

This airplane was equipped with a Digital Flight Data Recorder and a Cockpit Voice Recorder, both often times referred to as ‘black boxes’. The data contained in these devices will enable investigators from the NTSB, as well as our own experts, the ability to analyze detailed information and communications regarding the performance of both the airplane and the pilots.

The answers will come over time, after many months of testing and analysis undertaken by experts hired by the lawyers representing the interests of the victims and their families, as well as by NTSB groups on structures, systems, engines, human factors, survival factors, weather and many others.

Authored by: Aviation Trial Attorney Jamie R. Lebovitz