What will be the legacy of Asiana Airlines Flight 214?

Willie Grace | 7/7/2014, 3:29 p.m. | Updated on 7/7/2014, 3:29 p.m.
It's been true since the Wright Brothers first took flight: Bad plane accidents can lead to good safety improvements.

It's been true since the Wright Brothers first took flight: Bad plane accidents can lead to good safety improvements.

A deadly fire on an Air Canada flight in 1983, for instance, led to lavatory smoke detectors.

And the in-flight rupture of an Aloha Airlines fuselage five years later led to increased scrutiny of aging aircraft.

But what will be the legacy of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crashed one year ago this weekend?

CNN talked to safety experts and combed National Transportation Safety Board records for lessons learned in the Asiana crash.

Man vs. Machine

In pilot lounges and aviation blogs, the verdict is in: Asiana's pilots screwed up. The crew over-relied on automation, unintentionally disabled the plane's auto-throttle, did not pay attention to the plane's slowing speed, and failed at basic piloting skills.

That opinion is shared by the NTSB. Last month, the board concluded that the Asiana 214 crash resulted from the "crew's mismanagement of the airplane's descent" into San Francisco International Airport. It outlined a series of mistakes that led to the crash, which killed three teenage girls and seriously injured 49 of the 307 people aboard.

In layman's language, Asiana 214 was caused by pilot error.

But to blame the accident solely on pilot error is to miss the real lesson of Flight 214, past and present NTSB leaders say.

The "one change that I would like to see: Improving the human-machine interface," said former NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, who oversaw the crash investigation.

"The Asiana crash involved an inherently safe aircraft that performed as designed and a very experienced crew," Hersman said.

"But it demonstrated that commercial pilots are trained to rely heavily on sophisticated automation, which can become a trap if they don't understand what the system is doing behind the control panel."

At a December hearing, the safety board heard evidence that the Asiana pilots were confused by autopilot modes, believing the auto-throttle would maintain the plane's speed.

"Automation has unquestionably made aviation safer and more efficient. But the more complex automation becomes, the more challenging it is to ensure that the pilots adequately understand it," current safety board acting chairman Christopher Hart said last month.

"In this instance, the flight crew over-relied on automated systems that they did not fully understand. As a result, they flew the aircraft too low and too slow and collided with the seawall at the end of the runway."

The NTSB ruled that "complexities of the auto-throttle and autopilot" systems contributed to the accident.

It recommended that Boeing revise the B-777's operating manual to prevent confusion about the auto-pilot modes.

Boeing says it's faultless

"Boeing respectfully disagrees with the NTSB's statement that the 777's auto-flight system contributed to this accident," it said in a statement. "The auto-flight system has been used successfully for over 200 million flight hours across several airplane models, and for more than 55 million safe landings," it said. "All the airplane's systems performed as designed."