CBS news photo
It's about 1 AM. I just got back from NYC. Kate Ryan, our SOAR Course
PR person, called. "Put on your suit and be in New York in two hours." She told me about the Asiana crash at SFO and said she had set me up to be on the 6:00 news at WNBC. Time was short so I headed into the city while listening to radio reports on the crash. When I first saw video of the the burned out fuselage, I was concerned that there may have been no survivors. Fortunately, it took time for fire to reach the cabin. The dramatic fire damage to the plane took place after most of the passengers had escaped from the plane.
But what caused the crash? It is clearly evident that the tail of the plane hit a seawall that stands hundreds of feet from the runway. The aiming point for touchdown on the runway is not the end of the runway, but 1000 to 1500 feet past the end of the runway. If an airliner is on the proper path for landing, it is 57 feet in the air when it crosses the end of the runway. How high should it have been when it crossed over the seawall? I am unable to find the exact distance between the end of the runway and the seawall, but I estimate it to be about 400 feet. If so, the plane should have been at least 70 feet in the air as it crossed over the sea wall. Instead, the tail of the plane struck the seawall.
But why did the tail, rather than the landing gear, strike the seawall? During a normal lading, the landing gear is closer to the ground than is the tail. For the tail to be lower than the landing gear when landing the plane has to be flying much too slow. In this case, the plane was flying both too slow and too low.
From my point of view as a pilot, there is no excuse for flying either too slow or too low when landing. The speed of the plane is supposed to be stabilized long before reaching the runway. As to height, there is more than adequate guidance; radio signals are sent to the plane to show whether or not it is on the proper landing path. There is also a visual device to provide that information. But on a beautiful sunny day, any pilot should be able to land safely by eye alone.
In 2008, a British Airways 777 landed just just short of the runway at London Heathrow Airport. This was due to extended flight over the polar region where the temperatures were so low that ice crystals formed in the fuel which clogged a fuel filter. The filter was redesigned to prevent that from happening again. So I have great doubt - particularly since a passenger reported the engine power was increased just prior to impact - that engine trouble was the cause of this accident.
Two people died in the crash. Three-hundred-two survived, some with critical injuries, some with minor injuries and some with no injuries at all.
In the next few days, I expect the National Transport Safety Board investigation team to offer some clues that will allow us to better understand why the plane was flown so extremely below the proper glide path.
When an accident takes place, it makes flying even harder for anxious fliers. If this accident proves anything at this early stage in the investigation, it is that crashes are often survivable.