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Asiana Airlines Flight 214 Recalls Tragic Period In Korean Air Travel

Lauren Madow |
July 9, 2013 | 11:41 a.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

A National Transportation Safety Board employee examines wreckage from Flight 214's crash (NTSB via Wikimedia Commons)
A National Transportation Safety Board employee examines wreckage from Flight 214's crash (NTSB via Wikimedia Commons)
A full explanation for Asiana Flight 214's crash landing at San Francisco International Airport is still escaping investigators. The plane's black box recording reveals that no one on the flight crew mentioned problems until just seconds before the crash, although the plane was flying "significantly below" its required speed.

"There was no discussion of any problems clearly at a time when one was developing. Both pilots should have seen that something was going wrong," Aviation safety expert Barry Schiff told the Los Angeles Times. "Why didn't one of them say or do something?"

Asiana Airlines is based in South Korea and was established in 1988 as a rival to Korean Air Lines. Flight 214 was Asiana's third crash which resulted in fatalities since its founding.

ALSO SEE: San Francisco Plane Crash: New Details Point To Pilot Error

Korean Air Lines suffered several crashes in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, which were partially responsible for sweeping changes in air traffic communications practices.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, whose chapter on the intersection of cultural norms and piloting planes in his 2008 book "Outliers" focused primarily on the Korean Air Lines incidents, told Fortune magazine at the time that "Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s…What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.”

ALSO SEE: Cause Of San Francisco Plane Crash Under Investigation

The Washington Post compared the lack of conversation between crew members in Flight 214's cockpit to the British Air Accident Investigation Branch's findings on Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509, which crashed outside London on Dec. 22, 1999 and killed all four crew members:

The plane’s pilot was Park Duk-kyu, a 57-year-old former fighter pilot in the South Korean air force. The first officer was Yoon Ki-sik, 33, who had far less experience.

The investigative report said that Park was irritated by their late departure from London.

The report said that though Yoon was communicating correct information to the tower, Park spoke at him in a “derogatory” fashion, saying, “Make sure you understand what ground control is saying before you speak.”

Seconds later, he barked: “Answer them! They are asking how long the delay will be.”

“By making these comments, it is considered that the commander contributed to setting a tone which discouraged further input from other crew members, especially the first officer,” the report said.

When the plane went into its ill-fated bank less than a minute into the flight, the first officer said nothing, even though the instrument in front of him indicated that the plane was turned almost sideways, the report said.

In a Q&A about "Outliers," author Gladwell addressed the issue again:

Q: What's the most surprising pattern you uncovered in the book?

A: It's probably the chapter nearly the end of Outliers where I talk about plane crashes. How good a pilot is, it turns out, has a lot to do with where that pilot is from—that is, the culture he or she was raised in. I was actually stunned by how strong the connection is between culture and crashes, and it's something that I would never have dreamed was true, in a million years.

Q: Wait. Does this mean that there are some airlines that I should avoid?

A: Yes. Although, as I point out in Outliers, by acknowledging the role that culture plays in piloting, some of the most unsafe airlines have actually begun to clean up their act.

Pilot Patrick Smith agreed that airlines, including the various Korean airlines, have "cleaned up their act." Smith wrote in an article for Slate that Korean piloting now is nothing like it was during its darkest days:

In the 1980s and 1990s, that country's largest carrier, Korean Air, suffered a spate of fatal accidents, culminating with the crash of Flight 801 in Guam in 1997. The airline was faulted for poor training standards and a rigid, authoritarian cockpit culture. The carrier was ostracized by many in the global aviation community, including its airline code-share partners. But Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system. A 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries...

Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of Korean air safety in 2013. Plane crashes are increasingly rare the world over. But they will continue to happen from time to time, and no airline or country is 100 percent immune.


Reach Deputy Editor Lauren Madow here. Follow her here.



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