Asiana crash: Who's to blame?

Willie Grace | 6/23/2014, 10:25 a.m. | Updated on 6/23/2014, 10:25 a.m.
When federal safety investigators meet on Tuesday to determine the cause of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, they will have ...

When federal safety investigators meet on Tuesday to determine the cause of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, they will have studied not only last summer's deadly accident but also a little-known incident years earlier.

In August of 2010, Eugene Francis Arnold, one of the Federal Aviation Administration's top test pilots, was descending into Seattle's Boeing Field when he leveled off to avoid another plane.

To his surprise, his speed fell 10 or 15 knots below his target speed, even though he believed the jet's automated speed control, or auto-throttle, was engaged.

Arnold pushed the throttle manually to increase the plane's speed and landed safely.

Arnold, investigators believe, experienced the same type of "mode confusion" that caught Asiana's pilots off guard -- at a much lower altitude -- shortly before they plowed into the sea wall at San Francisco International Airport.

In both cases, the pilots believed they had selected modes of autopilot and auto-throttle that would "wake up" the auto-throttle if necessary, much as a car's cruise control kicks in when the car heads uphill. But they hadn't.

Complex system

There lies the big question before the National Transportation Safety Board when it meets Tuesday: Is Boeing to blame for creating a system so complicated that it befuddled even a top FAA test pilot?

Are the pilots to blame for not understanding the intricacies of the system and for failing to monitor the plane's speed?

Or is Korea-based Asiana Airlines to blame for not adequately training its pilots?

At a December hearing on the crash, experts told the safety board that while automation has vastly improved aviation safety, it has a flip side.

The same technology that makes it possible for pilots to fly coast to coast without touching a yoke are complicated and hard to master.

Thus, flying is getting easier and harder at the same time.

"Automation can be extremely supportive of human operators if it is designed properly," expert Nadine Sarter of the University of Michigan testified. "But we also have seen in a number of incidents (where) automation can actually get in the way."

"We have heard things like 'clumsy' automation, where automation ... helps the most when the pilot actually might need the help the least. But when they need the help the most -- in very time-critical conditions -- it might be very difficult for them to actually operate the automation," she said.

Different opinions

Not surprisingly, Asiana Airlines, the pilots union, and Boeing, which manufactured the 777 involved in the crash, have starkly different opinions of what role the pilots played in the crash, and the role of automation.

"The airplane and all airplane systems were functioning as expected prior to impact and did not contribute to the accident," Boeing said in a March submission to the safety board. The accident was caused by the pilots' failure to monitor and control the plane's airspeed and direction, and could have been avoided if they had initiated a timely go-around.