Feature

The fatal crash of a 777

Investigators focused on pilot error as the cause of the Asiana Airlines plane crash at San Francisco Airport.

Investigators focused this week on pilot error as the cause of the Asiana Airlines plane crash at San Francisco Airport, which killed two passengers and injured 180, some of them with serious spinal injuries. The Boeing 777 en route from Seoul approached the runway far too slowly, almost stalling as it lost altitude, then struck a seawall before slamming into the runway. Two teenage girls from China died; one may have been run over by a rescue vehicle. The two pilots were both experienced, but one was still training on the 777, and the other was making his first flight as an instructor. “The big mystery of Flight 214 is why in God’s name did these two pilots sit there and allow the air speed to get so low,” said former TWA pilot Barry Schiff.

Frequent fliers will be “understandably troubled” by this catastrophe, said Arnold Barnett in CNN.com. But crashes are exceedingly rare in this country—these two deaths are the first in more than 3 billion passenger journeys taken on scheduled commercial flights since 2009. A child born in the U.S. today is “far more likely to grow up to be president” than to die in a plane crash.

And these kinds of accidents are now survivable, said John Burnett in NPR.org. Look at the Asiana 777’s “gutted, charred fuselage” and you wonder how anyone made it out alive. But airlines now use fire-resistant materials and carpeting, and build seats “able to withstand 16 Gs of force.” Stewards were trained to evacuate the plane in 90 seconds, and fire squads were on the scene in minutes.

“But while flying has become safer, human beings still fly the planes,” said USA Today in an editorial. And the initial evidence suggests pilot error may be to blame. Did the pilots put too much trust in technology to guide them to safety—or too little? “Minimizing human error” might be the only way to make this “extraordinarily safe activity even safer.”

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