What Went Wrong with Asiana Flight 214
Why would an experienced crew crash a perfectly functional Boeing 777 on what should have been a simple everyday approach and landing in perfect weather?
The jury is still out on the official cause of the Asiana crash but most experienced airline pilots have heard enough to know this is most likely a case of gross pilot error.
San Francisco runway 28 left had so few electronic landing aids operable, the Asiana pilots had no choice but to do a visual approach. (An approach without electronic guidance using visual runway references only). This should not be a problem for any experienced pilot.
But the black box details have already revealed the pilots continued their approach even though it was so poorly executed, recovery became impossible.
The underlying reason of their error is one that is both simple and frightening and one that we see occurring more and more frequently.
Airline pilots are losing their ability to fly their aircraft.
Overreliance on automation has degraded airline pilots' basic flying skills to the point that many seem unable to cope when they are forced by circumstances to hand fly the aircraft.
I recently retired as a Boeing 747 Captain after a 34 year military and civil aviation career. My career straddled an era of rapidly improving avionics and autopilots.
In this period, auto flight has changed from a useful aid to the pilot to the preferred and now the required way to fly the jet.
In fact most airlines now insist the autopilot be engaged immediately after takeoff and removed shortly before touchdown. This is currently regarded as the safest way to operate a jet, as it allows the pilots to concentrate on the flight path and leaves the basic flying to the autopilot.
But hand flying a jet or any aircraft is a skill that needs to be practiced regularly to maintain a high level of competency. Overreliance on the autopilot has now degraded many pilots' confidence in their handling skills to the point they are reluctant to remove the autopilot even when it is doing something they do not understand or are not comfortable with. They prefer to "see what it's doing" before taking action. As with crashed Air France flight 442, waiting too long before taking control can sometimes be fatal.
In addition, by not being totally familiar with hand flying the jet in normal operation, a pilot is unlikely to perform well when forced to fly manually in an emergency situation. This has caused a number of unnecessary crashes in the last few years. Current airline training does not require regularly practicing hand flying except in the simulator.
It was not always like this. Airline training used to have a strong emphasis on handling skill. A veteran captain would encourage a new pilot to hand fly the jet at every opportunity and would coach him in the finer points not found in any training manual. Day or night, wind or rain, it was always good to experience aircraft handling in every environment. Because when the day came that you had no choice but to hand fly in trying conditions, you were ready. Sully Sullenberger did not hone his famous flying skill by twirling autopilot knobs.
Shortsighted airline operating policies have left airline pilots not ready to take control in an emergency. Or as it is becoming clear, in any situation that demands skillful hand flying.
The solution is surprisingly simple. Pilots must overcome their hand flying reluctance, remove the autopilot below 10,000 feet and actually fly a few times a month. They will quickly regain confidence and flying skill. Also, they will redevelop a "feel" for flight which will alert them immediately if something feels wrong with the autopilot operation.
I hope the Asiana crash will finally focus light on a trend I have been worried about for many years.