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Will Pilot Experience, Crew Fatigue Factor in Explanation of SFO Plane Crash?

July 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and former managing director of the NTSB, Peter Goelz, for more on the crash of the Asiana Airlines flight and the continuing probe into the accident, including the pilot's technical experience and whether fatigue could have played a role.


JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the accident and questions about the speed of the plane’s landing, we turn to the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman. She’s joining us from San Francisco.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

We heard you say today or confirm that the plane was coming in at a much slower speed than it should have been. What are the possible explanations for that?

DEBORAH HERSMAN, Chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, you know, we are looking at everything. And certainly we want to look and see if there are easy explanations for this.

But many times, what we find is it’s a little bit more complex than that. There’s not usually a single cause of an accident, but multiple contributing factors. So we’re going to be looking at the crew, their experience, their familiarity with the aircraft, how they were monitoring aircraft speed.

This is not the first time that we have seen a crash upon landing, and not the first time we have seen an airplane get slow and end up in a bad situation. And, so, we want to understand the humans. And we also want to understand the aircraft, the performance of the aircraft, how the automation worked, what type of flying they were doing. Were they all hand-flying the airplane? Were they relying on automation or were they doing a mixture of those two things?

How all of that works can be simple. But it can also be complicated. We want to make sure we have all of the facts straight before we reach any conclusions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it raise concerns that the pilot at the controls had only 43 hours’ experience flying this particular passenger jet, and that this was his first landing at San Francisco on this aircraft?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, we know that airliners and air crews operate all around the world. They come into airports that they may not be familiar with. That’s why we have standard procedures, approach charts, clearances, expectations, how they’re going to communicate with air traffic control.

They had the charts for San Francisco. We have been in the cockpit afterwards. We know that they were using those. We have more than one pilot in these commercial operations for a reason. And, clearly, when you have a pilot on initial operating experience or going through some training, you want to pair them with an experienced pilot who can help them if there are any problems.

There is more than one person in the cockpit for a reason. We expect them to work together, to use good crew resource management and to focus on flying the aircraft first, navigating, communicating. They have a lot of responsibility up there. We want to make sure that we learn from this investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, this accident happened at the end of a 10-hour flight from Seoul. How much of — concern is there in the aviation industry in general about fatigue on the part of the flight crew?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: You know, that’s a fantastic question.

The Safety Board has looked at fatigue for decades. It’s been on our most wanted list of transportation safety improvements many times. This was a transpacific flight, more than 10 hours. We have got actually two crews on this flight. One is a relief crew, because as you look at flight and duty time and you look at fatigue, it is a concern.

And so we want to talk to all four of those pilots to understand what was going on. And it is interesting that flight and duty rule changes have taken place here in the United States for the first time in many, many decades. We saw that there were changes made to the law after the last commercial aviation accident in February of 2009.

And those changes have resulted in more conservative flight and duty time for pilots, so that they get more rest and that there are limitations on what they can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Deborah Hersman, who is the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, we thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining us now is aviation safety expert Peter Goelz. He’s a former managing director of the NTSB from 1995 to 2000.

Peter Goelz, what are your principal concerns as you look at what happened in this crash?

PETER GOELZ, Former Managing Director, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, I think Chairman Hersman knows what she’s talking about.

This is going to be looked at for years to come as kind of a classic crew resource issue. How could you have two well-trained crew members allowing their approach speed to bleed off to such a low level that the aircraft’s stall warning goes off? It really is quite inexplicable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Literally inexplicable? Are you saying there’s no explanation for why that would have happened?

PETER GOELZ: Well, you have two trained people. There’s three things you need to do. You need to watch your speed, watch your altitude, watch your attitude.

This wasn’t just a slight degradation of speed. This was down to 100 knots, 34 knots below their approach speed. It really is — if the flying pilot wasn’t monitoring it, the non-flying pilot should have been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when you say that the — and we heard Deborah Hersman speak about they’re going to be looking at how the pilots interacted with each other. Are you saying that it could have been communication between the pilots? I mean, what — I’m trying to understand what could have happened here.

PETER GOELZ: Well, they will look at — you know, you have at least 30 minutes of the voice recorder. And the NTSB will listen to that to see how the crew approaches the landing.

Did they look at the approach maps? Did they discuss the various NOTAMs that were there, which is a notice that said the glide slope was out? Did they discuss what they would do if they were going to have to do a go-around? These are standard procedures that the flight crews has to do.

Were they paying attention to their jobs? And that’s what the voice recorder will tell us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Goelz, you told us earlier this afternoon that one of the concerns in the industry has to do with pilots being so accustomed to having very advanced avionics, electronics on these planes that they don’t get the kind of experience they need to deal in an these — in an emergency situation like this. Can you expand on that?

PETER GOELZ: Yes, it’s an issue really that the Flight Safety Foundation, one of the premier safety organizations in the world, has been starting to point out, that because we have such fabulous avionics and flight control systems in our planes today, that pilots are not being asked or not required to really get the flying, hands-on flying experience that they used to.

And the accident a few years ago of the Air France A-330 over the South Atlantic really showed that the flight crew again, very experienced, could not diagnose, could not overcome the confusion in the cockpit to actually fly the plane. And I think there is a concern that pilots may be losing their piloting edge with the great advances in flight avionics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, we know there were serious injuries. We heard from the surgeon that some of these passengers may not walk again.

We know there were two deaths. But why do you believe there weren’t more casualties in this crash?

PETER GOELZ: Well, that’s a great question, Judy.

And the answer is government regulations. The FAA instituted regulations mandating stronger seats, mandating that the interior of aircrafts be more fire-retardant and that they not emit toxic gases when ignited. These are steps that have saved lives.

And it’s nice to see it. It was a horrendous event, but 20 years ago, the death toll would have been much greater.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Goelz, thank you very much.

PETER GOELZ: Thank you.