Pilots: SF Airport Was a Crash Waiting to Happen
Landing system had been down for weeks
By Kevin Spak, Newser User
Posted Jul 8, 2013 2:35 PM CDT
This image released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Sunday, July 7, 2013, shows an NTSB agent photographing a part of the Boeing 777 Asiana Airlines Flight 214 aircraft.   (AP Photo/NTSB)

(Newser) – "It was only a matter of time before something like this happened." That's one pilot's take on the headline-grabbing Asiana Airlines crash that left two people dead and 182 injured. The San Francisco International Airport was primed for disaster, pilots tell Der Spiegel, because a landing safety system has been offline for weeks due to renovation. The out-of-commission system projects a plane's glide path, and would have warned the pilot sooner that he was coming in too low.

"A stabilized arrival in San Francisco has become practically impossible," the pilot says. The FAA says the system, which projects a plane's glide path, is "not necessary for a safe landing," but the NTSB has promised to investigate it as a factor. Pilots also complain that San Francisco's air traffic controllers instruct planes to perform exceedingly steep descents, in what they assume is a noise-reduction tactic, and that they're forced to land in rapid succession. The airport ranks first in aborted landings, and the Asiana pilot tried to abort at the last second as well. Beyond technical considerations, onsite conditions are considered poor—though the AP reports that the weather was actually unusually fair, given the fog that frequently blankets the airport. For more on another possible factor—the pilot's inexperience with 777s—click here.

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Showing 3 of 39 comments
Smitty6398
Jul 9, 2013 5:35 PM CDT
Wings fly !! The rest of the airplane performs other functions to facilitate their function of flying. Engines provide thrust to maintain speed which controls the variance of air pressure on the upper and lower surfaces of the wings providing lift. Planes are not built to absorb the forces of landing at flying speed, plus there are few, if any, runways capable of handling a commercial craft landing at speeds over 300 knots. Reduce the thrust and the craft slows down, BUT it also loses lift due to lower airflow past the wing; in short it slows down and loses altitude (all other factors remaining unchanged). At some speed, the wings can no longer provide enough lift to keep all of the craft in the air (commonly called "stall" speed). Standard wing design is to provide for economic operation at commonly flown altitudes with normal to maximum loads of fuel, passengers, convenience items, and other considerations. Typically the wing configuration at cruising speed will not support the craft at the much slower landing speeds. The answer is FLAPS, extension of the leading and/or trailing edges of the wings to change the wings profile and increase lift at lower air speeds; lowering the flaps will cause a lower air speed to ocurr due to the increase in drag caused by the change in wing contour; BUT, it does increase lift. In the landing slope, typically flaps are positioned early on to accentuate the approach angle over populated areas (noise abatement) and the engines throttled back. Closer in, the landing slope is leveled out somewhat and the engines throttled back to reduce speed; and, finally the engines may be throttled up to provide enough thrust for level flght and the craft is flown to the ground. I believe the bottom line will be the airspeed was allowed to drop below that which was needed to maintain lift; and the aircraft was not able to recover in the time left. It was too late to climb out of the problem; because at that point, bringing the nose up to gain altitude actually slowed the forward speed, the engines were spooled up, but had no time or distance to create the additional lift needed. Eventually, the cause will be Pilot Error. Had the airspeed been maintained at, or above, the minimum 137 knots, the craft would probably not have been too low: Perfect Landing ! The responsibility should be assigned to the Check Pilot. The crew and pasengers are very lucky that there was not more death and mayhem. Cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye is to be congratulated on her demeanor and professionalism in the aftermath, despite being injured.
RAD45
Jul 9, 2013 1:57 PM CDT
Having flown in and out of SFO and, years ago, the old airport in HongKong (Kai Tak) it is interesting to note the similarities between the two facilities in terms of approaches and obstructions. SFO's approach from the west was featured in a old Hollywood classic (The High and The Mighty) which concerned a trans-Pacific flight that had major equipment trouble making the coming landing a dicey affair. A similar overland approach to Kai Tak also made landing troublesome since the airliners were less than 100-feet over HK's highrise buildings and there was no room for error. SFO's approach from the east is also similar to KaiTak. Because it's over water, pilots must be exacting in their approach path and the runways sit 30-feet or so above the water. Thus a short landing means a nasty crash and an aborted landing also means the plane will have to execute a steep climb to clear obstacles (the ground, tall buildings, and highways) off the end of the runway. That SFO's glideslope system has been inactive for so long is an immenent danger to flight operations if only because of inexperienced arline pilots, wind shifts and bad coastal weather and fog. Perhaps it's time to think about a new airport for San Francisco, possibly a major expansion of Oakland's airport whose runways parallel the bay allowing over water approaches without the problems of obstacles like hills and tall buildings. The Chek Lap Kok Airport (HKG) was built to handle the world's largest volume of air cargo as well as the world's 12th largest in passenger traffic.. and it opened in 1998! SFO is 15-years behind! Meanwhle, the FAA needs to make sure downtime for electronic landing aids is measured in minutes, not days or weeks!!!!
Hammy696969
Jul 9, 2013 10:14 AM CDT
Human error. Someone was clearly not monitoring the airspeed and/or rate of descent indicators. This entire incident was definitely avoidable but............