June 22--A federal safety board Tuesday is expected to officially determine the cause of the tragic crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport last year, which raised troubling questions about pilot training and the complexity of modern aircraft flight systems.
At the widely anticipated hearing in Washington, D.C., the National Transportation Safety Board will also examine emergency crews' response to the accident. Amid the chaos after the crash, one of the passengers was run over twice by San Francisco Fire Department trucks, leading to questions about the department's training and procedures.
The girl was one of three teenagers who died in the July 6 crash that also injured 174 passengers and crew.
The NTSB can only make recommendations to regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration. However, it says that more than 82 percent of its recommendations have been adopted "by those in a position to effect change." Legally, its probable-cause finding is not admissible in court, said Michael Verna, a Walnut Creek attorney representing some crash victims.
"But from a safety standpoint, it's very important," he said. "Obviously, a lot of things happened we don't want repeated."
The crash landing, on a clear day, of a modern airliner that had no apparent mechanical or electronic problems has raised a troubling question: Have today's highly computerized flight control systems become too complex for some pilots to manage, even as they rely on them more and more?
"It will be interesting to see how much the NTSB highlights that," said Douglas Moss, an aviation expert with AeroPacific Consulting in Reno.
Flight 214 was inbound from Seoul, South Korea, with an experienced pilot being trained to fly the 777, and his instructor sitting in the right-hand seat. There were 12 crew members and 291 passengers, including 70 Chinese students and teachers headed to a summer camp.
As the aircraft passed over the San Mateo Bridge, about 5 miles from the runway, the pilot executed a series of commands that caused it to lose speed rapidly, a problem that the pilot discovered too late to execute a go-around for another try at landing.
That confusion in the cockpit has Asiana and Boeing squabbling about whether the plane gave adequate warning that it was losing speed, and about the complexity of the 777's flight control system.
While a basic task of any pilot is monitoring an aircraft's speed and altitude, experienced pilots say the complexity of the past couple of generations of airlines has added a significant amount of information to the basic ABCs of flying.
Testifying at a Dec. 11 NTSB hearing on the accident, Capt. Dave McKenney of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, said that even with his extensive flying experience, "I learned a few things today that I didn't know" from the expert testimony.
Asiana said it believes the probable cause of the accident was its flight crew's failure to monitor and maintain safe airspeed during the landing. A contributing factor, it acknowledged, was "the flight crew's failure to execute a timely go-around" as required by company procedures. But the airline also faulted the Boeing 777's complex automation controls for contributing to the accident.
Asiana claimed that "inconsistencies in the aircraft's automation logic" led the crew to believe that the airplane was maintaining a safe airspeed. It said warnings from the aircraft that something was wrong were "inadequate."
Boeing said in its own filing with the board that the accident would have been avoided "had the flight crew followed procedures and initiated a timely go-around" as the approach became increasingly unstable.
Barry Schiff, a retired airline captain and aviation expert, said in an interview that the issue of automation is irrelevant given the facts of the accident. "The reality of the situation is that the pilot did not pay attention to their airspeed," Schiff said.
But not knowing what the many controls are supposed to do or are doing is a problem on "a large number of different flight decks in lots of different circumstances" and for various levels of pilot experience, Nadine Starter, a University of Michigan expert on automation and human performance, said at the NTSB's December hearing.
McKenney, the pilot's association official, was the airline pilots association's co-chair of a 2006 working group that studied 26 accidents and 20 incidents that involved problems resulting from automation.
The study found that 40 percent of the accidents and 30 percent of the major incidents involved "some type of knowledge deficit of the pilots," McKenney testified.
Pilots are not taught to question the systems, McKenney said. "So they expect the system to work when they use it, and when it doesn't, then they get caught short."
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey
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