Earl J. McGill, author of Jet Age Man and Black Tuesday Over Namsi is no stranger to piloting large aircraft. Originally a B-29 copilot in the Korean War, McGill moved to Kansas to become an instructor pilot for B-47 jet bombers and then continued on to El Paso, where he became an aircraft commander and instructor pilot of B-52s. In light of the recent San Franciso 777 crash, Earl discusses this crash and his reflection on what happened that day:
I have a recurring dream: I’m sitting in the instructor’s seat of a Boeing multi-engine jet, a seat I occupied during most of my 5,800 hours in large aircraft. The pilot in the left seat is making the landing. I call out, “Airspeed low,” once, “Airspeed Low,” twice, “Airspeed low—throttles coming up.” Eight seconds, and I’ve taken control of the airspeed—too late. We are behind the power curve and no amount of throttle will extricate us from a dream that has become a nightmare. The nose is too high, the tail too low and the aircraft buffets as it approaches a complete stall—and disaster.
Although it’s been 44 years since I last instructed in those first big jets, the moment I saw the Asiana Airlines crash on TV, with its debris trailing behind it to the end of the runway, I remembered watching another Boeing jet crash. I also recalled my basic flight instructor saying that there are two kinds of pilots: those who have made short landings and those who will. Fortunately, the rest of us who have landed short didn’t confront a rocky seawall—or carry 307 passengers.
In August 1957 I was watching an RB-47 about to land. Two hundred feet short of the runway, its nose came up abruptly, the right wing dipped, and the aircraft struck the ground. It continued onto the runway, leaning starboard and decelerating. Something was clearly broken. It rolled 4,800 feet before pivoting 180 degrees. Fires in the engines spread to the ruptured rear fuel tank. Two crewmembers hit the concrete running. As the fuel fire spread and billowed I held my breath. There was still one person unaccounted for. Then I saw him, like a figure emerging from hell. When the helmet came off, he threw it down in disgust, and although I could not make out his features I knew that he was the instructor pilot, probably contemplating what he would do now that his flying career had ended in a fiery crash from flying too low and slow on a landing approach.
Fifty-six years later, a newspaper account of the Asiana crash reports: “Seven seconds before impact, someone in the cockpit asked for more airspeed after apparently noticing that the jet was flying far slower than its recommended landing speed.” This statement, ostensibly passed to the media by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), demonstrates little or no understanding of landing procedures in a large jet.
Seven seconds on final approach to landing can be too late—which is why the pilot not flying the aircraft calls out the airspeed, especially during the last few seconds before touchdown. If airspeed is low, he doesn’t “ask;” he applies power or lowers the nose, depending on where the aircraft is in relation to the glide path. Wording such as “apparently noticing” and “far slower” imply that either the flight crew was incompetent or (more likely) the reporter didn’t know what he was writing about—also evidenced by use of the word landing instead of approach. If the 777’s airspeed was “far slower than its recommended landing speed,” it would’ve fallen out of the sky.
Although media reporting of aircraft accidents is invariably flawed and sometimes ludicrous, reports dispensed by the NTSB are just as often vague and misleading. Worse, investigations that should take days are dragged out for months and even years.
Regarding the 777 crash, NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman has cautioned against drawing any conclusions based on information revealed so far, and that “final determination on the cause of the crash is months away.”
An analysis of Hersman’s statement makes one wonder if this is a CYA maneuver, or a way of keeping NTSB folks employed. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous. Being so bureaucratically bogged down that it is unable to reach reasonable conclusions in a timely fashion, NTSB allows the continuation of unsafe procedures and conditions that should be corrected immediately. Instead of focusing on red herrings—factors, such as the auto-throttle that could be a contributing cause—NTSB should zero in on and correct the basic cause.
If there are airline crews who are not calling out airspeeds on final approach, they should be required to do so, starting now, not “months away.”
Results of NTSB accident reports in recent years suggest that investigation of aircraft accidents should be conducted by a proactive organization made up of instructor pilots and other aircrew members who know how to focus on causes that can be corrected.
My research of Boeing B-47 losses revealed that thirty-two crashed on final approach as a result of improper airspeed control—between 1951 and 1965. This is a lesson that should already have been learned.