Look Up, Look Out!

December 17th, 2013 by Amy Laboda
Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

This I know: if you see something with your own two eyes, you can avoid it. Happened to me just this morning. I began a turn off a road I use quite often (that’s important) and nearly encountered a concrete berm the engineers felt was important to add since I’d been there last. Fortunately for me, I was looking outside and forward. And lucky for me the car’s brakes are new. No damage done.

It works the same in an airplane. Even in instrument (IFR) conditions I scan outside the airplane as a cross-check of my instruments, looking for traffic, towering clouds I prefer to fly around and of course, the runway.

I do this even though I fly what the FAA calls a “technically advanced aircraft” (TAA). I’ve got nearly as much information in my cockpit as the Asiana Airlines guys who, despite more than 20,000 hours of experience and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TAA allowed their B777 to fly into a rock berm at San Francisco International airport last July. After an all-day hearing on December 11, and despite the fact that the NTSB refused to state a cause for the accident (pending even more research) the reason these pilots hit that berm instead of landing is appallingly clear: they relied on their TAA and not on their pilot instincts; instincts borne in the seat of their pants and through interpreting what their eyes were telling them.

After reading a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder I’ll cut the junior first officer a break. He was sitting on the jumpseat, and pointed out the excessive sink rate and deteriorating airspeed to his captains no less than four times in the last three minutes of the flight. His comments were acknowledged, but no changes were made. Hmmm….

How does this pertain to GA flight? Consider it a cautionary tale. If you fly with what I like to call “pretty pictures,” more often known as EFIS, PFDs or MFDs, or even Garmin / iPad GPS moving maps on your lap or clamped to your yoke, please remember this: those are just representations of the world outside. GPS isn’t always reliable. Maps of terrain can be offset slightly (do you test this by occasionally flying directly over an obstacle?), RAIM can fail. I’ve seen the pretty boxes of my virtual glideslope on my EFIS not consider the trees that have grown up and into a runway’s clear zone. And ADS-B or even active traffic systems can’t pick up aircraft without transponders. I know from looking out my windscreen that plenty of traffic opt out. And autopilots, auto-throttles, FADEC and the like? They are only as good as the pilot’s knowledge of their intricacies and fallacies (this is what really bit the Asiana pilots in their collective butt).

Bottom line, my TAA gives me wonderful capabilities, but they are only as good as my complete understanding of how to use them, and when. Above all, I was taught to use my kinesthetic senses and my eyes looking outside the aircraft when I fly, no matter the conditions. Call me old-fashioned, but it works.

Oh, and I listen to my co-pilot when he tells me there might be a problem. Even pinch-hitters (non-pilot co-pilots who fly with you all the time) can perceive issues before they become big problems in flight. They are great traffic and ground-spotters, and they’ll tell you when they think you are fatigued, too. So listen and respond.

Want to know more? Don’t just read the pundits. Look over the raw NTSB records at www.ntsb.gov. There’s plenty for a GA pilot to learn there.

Amy Laboda

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Larry

    Amy,
    Not sure what you’re flying, but doubt that you have the capabilities of a 777. You probably would not have been thinking the auto throttle and/or airspeed control was flying your plane. However, there are a few things to learn.

    I could argue to never take ones hands off the throttle during approach… auto throttle or not, and sometimes one can “lead” the auto throttle if it’s responding a bit slow. With most of our GA planes, we don’t need to worry about the auto throttle moving at the wrong time, but will still monitor power.

    As for airspeed and altitude we (GA) would probably not get a low speed/low altitude warning, but will still monitor speed and altitude as appropriate… and we have briefed the approach speed (and ground speed), and call out to ourselves airspeed and sink rate on short final. I’d bet that was a requirement of Asiana.

    And if things aren’t going as planned, there’s always a go around.

  • Reidar

    This isn’t the first time that a lowly Asian copilot has been ignored…Look back at the incident at Anchogage Ak. about 7 years ago to a China Air flight that was taking off for Taipei one dark winter night. While they were still on a taxiway, the tower cleared them to take off, the captain, who was getting a line check by a check airman, did just that!!!
    The copilot spoke up, but the captain along with the check airman shut him down! They hadn’t even turned the 90′ onto the runway yet!!! The tower realizing that the flight was taking off immediately called the fire department out, they knew that the China Air crew would not respond in time to reject the takeoff. They somehow got the A340 off in the approx. in the 3500′ of taxiway. My buddy who was the first responder, took a picture of the tire tracks thru the snow berm at the end of the taxiway. The flight continued on to Taipei, the incident was reviewed, but no violations were incurred. I propose that all Asian carriers that are allowed into the US be required to have as one of their operating crewmembers in the middle seat, to be one of our old (age 65) US pilot, that is no longer allowed to be PIC, to supervise these foreigners.

  • Cary Alburn

    Garmin, Avidyne, Honeywell, Dynon, and many of their competitors big and small have done a marvelous job of designing and creating avionics which only a few years ago would have been thought to be no more than pipe dreams. The idea that any airplane, GA, 121, or military, could be programmed in such a way that it could fly itself from take-off through and including landing without being touched by the pilot is on the one hand pretty marvelous, and on the other hand pretty scary.

    The obvious danger of any TAA aircraft, whether it’s a B777 or C172, is that the pilot can become “doodad dependent” and forget how to fly the airplane. If you’re on a collision course with another airplane, you don’t reprogram the autopilot to turn the airplane, you turn the airplane. But I’m afraid that too many TAA pilots will reprogram the autopilot.

    It’s human nature—if all you do is watch others do, pretty soon you can’t do, you can only watch. Whether you’re watching another pilot do, or watching the doodads do, your skills will deteriorate. That’s why any good instructor takes the controls periodically, so that he/she can continue to do what he/she is teaching the students to do.

    So when the doodads fail, the complacent TAA pilot who is accustomed to twisting this knob and pushing that button is in trouble. Or as the Asiana pilots found out, when the knob twisting and button pushing won’t allow the doodads to intercept the ILS to automatically land the airplane because it’s OTS, they couldn’t do it. Whether they ever had the skill to take command of the airplane is irrelevant—at the time of the final approach to San Francisco, they didn’t have that skill. And people died.

    • Jean Schwarzkopf

      In this case the “doodads” didn’t fail. The Captain was high on final. He set the altitude alerter to sea level and hit “level change”. This causes the auto throttles to pull back to flight idle and descend on the speed bug. The bug would be set on Vref plus five. Basicly he programed the autopilot to crash the aircraft. For some reason Asian pilots act like a fish out of water when there is no glide slope available. Look into the 747 crash in Guam. In this case all he had to do was set up for the Lnav, Vnav approach and put his hands in his lap till 200 feet. I was on a 10 mile final to SFO when my TCAS went off because there was a Singapore Airlines 747 in front of me flying at a 90 degree heading to my course. The tower was screaming at him and all he would say was “I landa San Fra Cisco”. They finely vectored him out over the Pacific and I assumed he landed later that day.

  • Marc Rodstein

    “they relied on their TAA and not on their pilot instincts; instincts borne in the seat of their pants and through interpreting what their eyes were telling them.”

    I don’t think they had the instincts that Amy credits them with. If they had, the crash would not have occurred. Developing these instincts requires hands-on flying of airplanes, not programming of computers.

  • Aaron

    Hindsight is 20-20, but if the ILS is out and you are concerned about the visual, load the 28L RNAV /LPV and fly that GS down.

  • Mark

    I noticed this same observation in the mainstream media but was surprised to see it expressed in an AOPA article.

    Who says the Pilot Flying ignored the junior officer’s chatter about excessive sink rate? Maybe he responded in the most logical way, by pulling back on the control yoke to arrest the sink rate (not adjusting the power because he believed the auto-throttles were engaged), thus losing airspeed. Maybe the junior officer’s “sink rate” warnings were part of the accident chain — a cause of the crash.

    I wonder if the accident would have occurred if that junior officer had just kept quiet. Alternatively, what if he had called out “low airspeed” or “airspeed 130″ rather than commenting on the sink rate? What if he had realized the auto-throttles were in the wrong mode and called that to the pilot’s attention? What if he had simply said, “go around”?