Asiana 214: Training with passengers in the back?

Friends have asked me how it is possible that the fare-paying passengers on Asiana 214 were unwitting participants in a training flight. I explained that this is standard procedure.

At the Delta subsidiary where I flew we received about 60 hours of simulator training, only half of which was time on the controls and/or autopilot (the other half as “pilot monitoring” running the checklists, radios, switches, etc.). Then we took a checkride with an FAA-designated examiner (a senior pilot at the same airline) and were released into “initial operating experience” (IOE), the same phase of training that Asiana 214’s pilot was in. In the old days, a pilot had to do at least three takeoffs and landings in an empty airplane before being allowed to fly with passengers but that rule was relaxed due to faith in the fancy full-motion (Level D) sims and the staggering cost of operating empty jets. Unfortunately the sims are least faithful when it comes to visual approaches and the actual landing.

About half of my class at Comair failed a stage check and received additional sim training, but I got only the bare minimum. My checkride was not too stressful either. The oral exam, which can last 2-3 hours and can include any item of minute knowledge involving regulations, the aircraft’s systems, or almost anything else aviation-related, must by regulation precede the actual flying and it tends to set the tone. The examiner to whom I was assigned was accustomed to humiliating applicants with an opening oral question that none had ever been able to answer satisfactorily. After they realized how ignorant and worthless they were he beat them down for an additional three hours before getting into the sim with the demoralized young pilot.

What was the question? “Why does the Canadair Regional Jet have both an alternating current (AC) electrical system and a direct current (DC) system as well?” As it happened, I had wondered the same thing myself just a couple of weeks earlier. I’d carefully studied the electrical diagrams for the airplane and had a one-hour phone discussion with a friend who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley. Without giving the guy any hint as to my non-aviation background or the fact that I’d discussed this with a physicist, I went up to the whiteboard and gave a 5-minute talk about how Maxwell’s equations explained that a time-varying magnetic field, like you would get from using engine power to rotate permanent magnets, generates a time-varying electric field, i.e., alternating voltage potential. This AC power is ideal for driving the heaviest load on the airplane, the hydraulic pumps for the flight controls (a spinning motor having more or less the same structure as a generator). Having AC power at a high voltage also makes it easy to have lighter wires to move the power around the airplane and then transform down to lower voltage for radios, etc. A transformer will pass AC voltage but not DC.

He said “Your oral is complete. We’re getting into the sim now.” As my sim partner had been pulled back for some remedial training I flew with a line captain (he actually screwed up executing the published missed off one of the approaches; that’s how rare it is in real life to be assigned a published missed!) and I was done after about 1.5 hours. I had a type rating on my pilot certificate and virtually no ability to fly the airplane. (Experienced pilots say that it takes about a year to master a new airplane, perhaps less if transitioning from one big heavy jet to another, though perhaps not if the Asiana 214 accident is anything to go by.)

The newbie pilot is allowed to fly only with “check airmen” at the airline for the first 50-100 hours (a minimum of 50 hours in any case) until one of these check airmen signs off the pilot as having completed IOE.

My first flight was CVG to TYS (Knoxville, Tennessee), a distance of 197 nautical miles. We conducted the 30-minute trip at an altitude that would have been practical for some piston-engine airplanes and began the descent checklist as soon as we leveled off. The radios and PA system belong to the first officer during the taxi phase of the flight. It probably would have been only fair  to tell the 50 folks in the back “I really appreciate your confidence in me because almost all of my flying experience has been in four-seat aircraft that weigh 3000 lbs. or less. This will be my first time flying a anything with more than 8 seats and I hope that it goes well. If you don’t want to be part of my training maybe you’d like to wait for the next flight.”

When we got down on the ground I was incredibly proud of myself. The heaviest plane that I had any real experience flying was a friend’s Twin Commander 1000, with a gross weight of 11,200 lbs. Most of my time was in a 3000 lb. Cirrus or a 2400 lb. Robinson R44 helicopter and yet I had executed a nearly perfect flight in a 50-seat 53,000 lb. jet. Apparently the landing was not quite as smooth as I thought, however, because the flight attendant got on the PA and said “As you can feel, we’ve landed in Knoxville.”

I was signed off from IOE at the minimum of 50 flight hours. I still didn’t know how to fly the airplane and now, instead of being paired with the airline’s best captains (the check airmen) I would be paired with the least senior ones (due to union seniority rules). The smartest captain that I encountered flatly refused to fly with me. He had just been upgraded to captain and had about 75 hours of experience as captain. I told him that I had about 100 hours in the airplane. He recognized the situation as a disaster in the making and told the airline to find him a different first officer.

On week after I completed IOE I was assigned to fly with a young recently upgraded captain to Toronto. I had about 75 hours of experience at this point during one month of flying the CRJ. The Tower cleared us to land on runway 33R. I had the plane set up perfectly. We were 3-4  miles from the runway and descending in a stable configuration. Then the Tower controller changed his mind: “Cancel landing clearance. You’re now cleared to land Runway 33L.” This is a shorter runway that starts about 2000′ farther away than 33R and also requires a horizontal sidestep of about 3500′. I would have to add some power and maneuver the airplane to line up with the other runway.

A good CRJ pilot would have added exactly the right amount of thrust so that it wouldn’t be necessary to touch the levers again until 50′ above the ground when it was time to pull them back to idle. How did I handle the situation? I added too much power. Then I took some back out. Then I had to add some back in. Then I finally got us stabilized close to the 500′ above-the-ground minimum altitude that our company rules called for (if not stable at 500′ in visual conditions, go around; if not stable at 1000′ in instrument conditions, go around). After we’d pulled off the runway and cleaned up the plane I said “That was so embarrassing. I feel like I should mail my ATP certificate back to the FAA.” The captain replied with one of the wisest and kindest things that anyone has ever said to me: “Nobody was born knowing how to fly a 53,000 lb. jet.”

[I think of that Toronto flight and this captain often. When my daughter Greta was two and half years old I bought her a bicycle with 12″ wheels and training wheels. She had trouble pedaling and said “It’s hard to do.” I responded with “Just keep practicing, Greta. Nobody was born knowing how to ride a bicycle.”]


8 thoughts on “Asiana 214: Training with passengers in the back?

  1. Interesting post. I understand about the need to train pilots on new aircraft. What is your sense of the flashing lights at 500 feet that the landing pilot states he saw? From what I have read no one else saw that.

  2. David: There aren’t too many “flashing lights” that are significantly brighter than the sun. All of the laser incidents that I’ve heard about, for example, were at night.

    Anyway, the plane’s problems started at about 3000′, not 500′, according to . You can see that the plane was kind of high. Somehow the thrust levers got pulled back to idle (“big adjustments, big mistakes” one of my Comair colleagues used to say) and the thrust was never added back in once the plane was back on glide slope.

    You don’t in fact need to look out the window much to land a jet once it is stabilized on final. Maybe if you are trying to finesse which 250′ block of the runway the plane will touch down within. But 28L at SFO is 11,381′ long so finesse was not required, even with a plane as big as a B777 (the plane can probably be stopped less than 3000′ after contacting the ground; shows that a minimum of 4000′ of runway is required at light weights but that budgets for touching the wheels 1000′ down the runway and no use of reverse thrust (brakes only)).

  3. David: I don’t want to comment too much until the full NTSB report comes out, but basically there are just some commonsense rules that apply to flying jets. First is “If a switch has dust on it, don’t touch it.” When landing you know that there is some power setting (usually expressed in “percent N1”, e.g., 40% N1 or 40% of the max speed that the big fan can spin) that will usually suffice to keep the airplane heading down a standard glide path (3 degrees) at a standard speed at a standard weight in a standard headwind (10 knots?). What if the wind is super strong and the airplane is heavy? You’ll need more power. Would 80% N1 (cruise power) be reasonable? Certainly not. Maybe add 3% N1. What if the wind is light and the airplane is light? You’ll need less power. Chop the thrust levers to idle? You know in advance that won’t work. Maybe use 3% N1 less than usual and see how it works out.

    Very preliminarily it sounds as though they thought they had the autothrottles engaged but in fact thrust was at idle and nobody was monitoring N1 or, apparently, airspeed. So they would clearly have been better off on this flight in a plane with much less automation. Then everyone would have known to look at N1 and airspeed periodically.

    The user interfaces of all of these systems are not the greatest so it is not at all uncommon for pilots to be confused as to how the autopilot is set up and/or whether or not it is engaged.

  4. I’ll defer to you concerning flight training, but please don’t give a child training wheels. Take off the training wheels and while you’re at it take off the cranks and then lower the seat to where your daughter can put her feet flat on the ground. Tell her to have fun with her scooter. Once she’s learned to balance it for a long glide, she can have the pedals back.

  5. The bright light the PF reported seeing could have been the result of micro-sleep.

    When this occurs it is often perceived by the victim as a flash of light during the waking phase.

    It probably had no specific relationship to the crash other than to point out the crew was likely tired. i believe it was 03:30 or so local time to them.

  6. Karl: I know the theory that training wheels are bad, but I got Greta one of those “balance bikes” and she had zero interest in it. I think she is getting some good bike balancing experience riding on a “trailer bike” that is attached to my hybrid bike’s seat post. She balances to some extent and pedals.

  7. Reading this stuff makes me uncomfortable, given that I have a long trip scheduled in less than a month. The fact that 20k commercial airliners fly daily in US without any significant issues seems a miracle to me.

  8. Yes, we have a trailer bike too, and my daughter loves it.

    Which brings us back to the original topic, training with passengers in the back.

Comments are closed.