By Alwyn Scott
July 7 The first fatal crash of a Boeing 777
jetliner on Saturday may not pose much of a setback to the
company, in part because design features of the plane helped
prevent burning and break-up that could have led to greater loss
of life, experts said.
So far, there were no indications of mechanical failure
aboard Asiana Airlines flight 214 before it touched
down short of the runway in San Francisco, skidded across the
tarmac and erupted in flames, killing two passengers and
injuring more than 180 people.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah
Hersman said Sunday that it was too early to say whether pilot
error or mechanical failure were to blame. But she said there
was no evidence of problems with the flight or the landing until
7 seconds before impact, when the crew tried to increase the
plane's speed and the plane responded normally. The control
tower was not alerted to any plane issues.
Aviation experts noted that confidence in the plane was
increased by the fact that the fuselage remained largely intact
after impact and the fire remained at bay until after many
passengers had exited, thanks to engineering design and a flame
retardant cabin interior that are standard on modern jets. The
777 also has a exceptional safety record that will support
confidence in the jet.
"This, to me, is actually more of a story about tremendous
safety," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the
Teal Group in Virginia.
"You have this cataclysmic-looking crash where the
overwhelming majority of people walk away. This is a very safe
Hospitals were surprised that there were not more burn
victims. "We were expecting burns, we did not see them," said Dr
Margaret Knudson, chief of surgery at San Francisco General
Hospital, which received the most patients of any hospital.
The accident came as Boeing Co is battling to sell a
new 777 version to customers to compete with a rival A350 plane
from Airbus. Earlier this year, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner
was grounded by regulators after batteries overheated on two
jets, raising safety concerns about that jet and prompting an
overhaul of battery design.
Hours after the accident, the first airliner crash in the
United States since 2009, Asiana Airlines President and CEO Yoon
Young-doo said the plane did not appear to be at fault.
"For now, we acknowledge that there were no problems caused
by the 777-200 plane or (its) engines," Yoon told reporters at
the company headquarters on the outskirts of Seoul.
That kind of early reassurance for the aircraft could
support Boeing shares when trading resumes on Monday.
"Investors will not view this negatively for the 777," said
Ken Herbert, an analyst at Imperial Capital in San Francisco. "I
do not think it will have any lasting impact on what has
otherwise been a stellar record for the 777."
Boeing shares closed at $104.20 on Friday. The shares have
gained about 38 percent so far this year.
'HAND-FLYING THE AIRCRAFT'
Still, the two deaths on Saturday mar the unblemished safety
record for one of Boeing's flagship jetliners and a solid
workhorse of the industry, which has flown since 1995 without a
In January 2008, all passengers and crew survived when a
similar British Airways 777-200ER crash-landed yards short of
the runway at London's Heathrow Airport.
A two-year investigation blamed the crash on a fuel blockage
caused by the release of ice that had built up during the long
flight from Beijing. The discovery led to changes in the design
of the British Rolls-Royce engines used on some 777s.
The Asiana plane that crashed on Saturday was powered by
engines from Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United
Witnesses said the plane on Saturday appeared to be too low
as it approached the runway, hit the ground before the runway
started and the impact sheared off part of the tail of the plane
and possibly landing gear as well.
A navigation system called the Glide Path, which helps
pilots make safe descents, was turned off at the San Francisco
airport on Saturday, officials said.
But aircraft safety experts said Glide Path was far from
essential for routine landings, and it was not unusual for
airports to take such landing systems offline for maintenance or
Safety experts said investigators likely would focus on
whether that system's partial shutdown played a role in the
crash. They also would look at whether the pilot made a mistake
that might have been corrected had the computer been switched
"I am sure the investigators will look at operational error
as a possibility and want to know how much experience this crew
had with hand flying the aircraft rather than depending on the
computer to take them to touch down," said Jim Hall, a former
head of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Greg Feith, a former senior NTSB air crash investigator,
said many pilots use the computer system for backup to guide the
plane on a proper flight path even in good weather.
He said the unusually high nose-up angle of the Asiana
flight and the pilot's attempt to accelerate right before
landing suggested the pilot might have been on an incorrect path
and increased thrust in the final seconds to try to avoid
undershooting the runway.