Media getting it wrong on Asiana 214 pilot

by Aaron Karp
Jul 08, 2013

Media gives misleading impression that it is unusual or improper for pilot to make first landing at airport in new aircraft type.

A good portion of the media, both in the US and internationally, is running with the story that the Asiana Airlines pilot who was at the controls when Flight 214 crashed on landing at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was in “training” on the Boeing 777. The implication of many of the articles and television broadcasts I’ve seen is that it was improper to have allowed him to land the plane at SFO.

It’s far too early to reach any definitive conclusions about the 777-200ER crash, and pilot error could end up being the cause of or a contributing factor to the fatal accident, but it does not appear from the information provided about the pilot that it was inherently wrong, or even unusual, for him to be tasked with the landing. According to information provided by Seoul-based Asiana to media, the pilot at the controls was Gang-Guk Lee, a veteran Asiana flight deck crew member who was in the midst of making the transition to flying the 777. Lee had accumulated more than 9,700 hours of total flight time, including on the 747, but had just 43 hours on the 777 and was still going through a formal “familiarization” period in which he was required to be paired with more experienced 777 pilots.

According to widespread reports, sitting next to Gang-Guk Lee in the cockpit at the time of the crash was Jeong-Min Lee with more than 12,000 hours flying time overall including 3,200 hours on the 777. Jeong-Min Lee presumably gave the approval for Gang-Guk Lee to perform the landing at SFO, Gang-Guk Lee’s first at the airport with a 777.

There is a lot of media hand wringing and scary headlines about this. The misleading impression being given, at least in the initial reporting about the pilots, is that Gang-Guk Lee was not experienced enough to have been at the controls during the landing.

But as US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Deborah Hersman said Monday morning on NBC’s Today Show, it is typical for pilots to move to new aircraft types. When they do, after going through simulator training, the pilots then go through an initial “training” period in which they are part of crews with more experienced pilots on the aircraft type to which the pilot is transitioning. At some point, these pilots make their first landing with an aircraft type at a given airport.

Gang-Guk Lee had landed at SFO before in other aircraft, including the 747, and he had landed the 777 already at, among other airports, London Heathrow and Los Angeles International. Allowing an experienced pilot who has landed a 747 at SFO and a 777 at Heathrow and LAX to land a 777 at SFO does not sound out of line at all.

“It’s not unusual for pilots to have a first landing at an airport,” Hersman told NBC. The key is to have “good crew pairings” so less experienced pilots are paired with more experienced pilots, she added.

It would be quite difficult for the global airline industry to operate if every pilot has to have landed at a given airport in a specific aircraft type before being allowed to land at that airport with that aircraft type. Logically, it wouldn’t work. (What if an airline launches a new route and few, if any, of its pilots have ever flown into the airport added to the carrier’s network?) There has to be a first time to be a second time, a third time, etc.

A pilot landing at an airport for the first time in a new aircraft type “happens as a matter of course every day at every airline,” Chelsey Sullenberger, the famous Captain Sully of the Hudson River landing, told CNN Monday.

This is not to say pilot error did not play a role in the Asiana crash. It is too early to conclude whether it did or didn’t. But there appears to be nothing inherently wrong, unusual or improper with having allowed Gang-Guk Lee—who, again, had previously landed a 747 at SFO and a 777 at several major airports—to land the plane.

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