Investigators are continuing to examine the training and experience of the cockpit crew of the Asiana flight that crashed Saturday in San Francisco. The pilot at the controls had nearly 10,000 hours of experience flying large jets, but only 43 hours in that particular plane, a Boeing 777. Saturday was also the pilot’s first 777 landing at San Francisco International.
Pilots transition from flying one airplane model to another all the time; it’s a regular part of the job as airlines add new aircraft and pilots fly new routes or get promotions to piloting bigger jets.
Most of the training for those pilots, in the U.S. and abroad, is done in very sophisticated simulators. John Barton, a senior pilot for a major U.S. airline, has been an instructor on the 777. He says once you buckle the simulator’s shoulder harness and fasten the seat belts, it’s just as though you are inside the actual jet.
Simulators And Supervisory Pilots
“When you push up the throttles, you feel the movement of the plane going down the runway, you feel the wheels actually hitting any ruts in the runway, you can feel the movement of the ground going away from you,” Barton explains. “You look out, you’ll see everything as it is for real.”
And simulators can be used to train pilots in ways the real thing just can’t, like coping with engine fires and aborted takeoffs.
A basic simulator course offered to experienced pilots might run two or three weeks. After that, says James Higgins of the University of North Dakota’s department of aviation, pilots are typically ready for passenger flights.
“And they have to have a special pilot that helps supervise them and makes sure there are no hiccups and make sure that they make that transition smoothly and safely,” says Higgins, who has served in that supervisory pilot role himself.
The Asiana pilot in control as the plane approached the San Francisco airport Saturday was on just such a training flight, with a very experienced 777 pilot sitting next to him.
In addition to simulator training and supervised flights, pilots in the U.S. and at major international airlines are trained in something often called “crew resource management”: essentially, teaching pilots to work together and communicate.
The U.S. began emphasizing these skills in the 1980s, when it became clear that inadequate communication in the cockpit was contributing to too many accidents. Pilots didn’t always talk to each other about what they thought was going wrong, says former airline executive David Greenberg, who is now an industry consultant.
Stressing Communication In The Cockpit
“In an aircraft that’s designed by the manufacturer to be operated by a party of two … if one individual goes essentially solo and says to the other, ‘Sit on your hands until I ask you to do something,’ you’ve lost the redundancy,” Greenberg says. “You’ve lost the layer of safety that you have designed into the system.”
The situation was so pronounced at Korean Airlines in the 1990s that best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell devoted a whole chapter to it in his book Outliers. Titled the “Ethnic Theory of Plane crashes,” the chapter argues that, in essence, because the Korean culture was based on hierarchy, pilots were too deferential to their superiors and didn’t challenge them when something was amiss.
David Greenberg says Gladwell had a point — albeit an overly simplified one. Years ago, Korean Airlines hired Greenberg and charged him with fixing lots of problems at the airline, including better communication in the cockpit. And it can be taught, he says.
One training tool is presenting situations in a simulator, “then actually videotaping and debriefing the results so the individual gets to see what they did … and talk about what they might have done differently,” Greenberg says. “And they’ll have a chance to go back and do it again until it becomes a more natural response to work as a team.”
Investigators in San Francisco are still determining exactly what was going on in the cockpit as the pilots made their far-too-slow approach into the airport. But based on what has been released so far, many pilots and safety experts say they can’t understand why the senior training pilot allowed the plane to get into such a serious situation without intervening.