Some more details came out earlier today about the horrific crash of Asiana Flight 214 on Saturday. It turns out Lee Kang-guk, the pilot at the controls of the plane when it crash-landed in San Francisco had only 43 hours of experience flying that plane.
“For him, this was a training flight, as he was switching to a new type of plane,” Asiana Airlines’ president, Yoon Young-doo, said Monday of Mr. Lee.The investigation has barely started, and already we have our first $64,000 question. How do you let someone who is still training to fly a plane fly it on a transoceaniic flight? Both South Korean and American investigators are considering all possibilities. However, it looks like Yoon threw Lee Jeong-min, the co-pilot and Lee Kang-guk's trainer, under the bus. Yoon said that while Lee Kang-guk was in the pilot's chair, Lee Jeong-min was ultimately responsible for the flight.
Mr. Lee, 46, a 19-year veteran with Asiana, has logged more than 9,700 hours of flying, piloting A320s and Boeing 737s and 747s to various destinations, including San Francisco. He had just 43 hours of flying time with Boeing 777s, and had made eight landings with them, in London, Los Angeles and Narita, Japan. He was still on a "familiarization flight" program when he was at the controls Saturday; a senior colleague with more experience landing 777s, including at San Francisco, sat beside him as co-pilot.
The Old Grey Lady thinks it may have stumbled on a contributing cause of the accident--South Korea's aviation culture.
With most pilots recruited from the air force, strict hierarchy ruled among South Korean pilots, so much so that investigators and critics at the time said that co-pilots were not able to challenge the pilots even when there was an obvious mistake. Both Asiana and Korean Air have been gradually hiring more nonveterans, including foreign pilots, partly because there were not enough South Korean Air Force veterans to meet the rising demand for pilots — especially in recent years, when they expanded overseas routes as budget airlines joined the competition for the domestic market. Now they fill roughly half of the cockpits. (Mr. Lee was one of them, joining Asiana in 1994 as a trainee pilot.)That culture may have contributed to South Korea's rather dubious safety record until recently.
At least two aviation experts told CNN that Lee's lack of experience flying a 777 is a big deal.
It's "highly significant," former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo said Monday, particularly how he came across the water and over the seawall, she said. If the pilot was going to avert danger, Schiavo said, he needed to take action well before the plane reached that seawall.Schiavo was joined by aviation consultant Mark Weiss, who was a pilot for 20 years. He said that anyone with only 43 hours on a plane is still "basically new to the airplane." He also thinks Lee might have assumed he could land the plane in the same manner as other planes he'd flew, but the 777 had characteristics different from other planes he'd dealt with.
Lee was legally qualified to fly the plane, Schiavo said. But he was also flying during a period when he was trying to build up additional hours of 777 cockpit time to "gain comfort at the controls and experience flying the plane under certain conditions."
It's still early in the investigation, but again you have to wonder how an airline would let someone fly a transoceanic flight on a plane he really didn't know that well.