Was The San Francisco Plane Crash An Accident Waiting To Happen?

Burning wreckage of San Francisco plane crash: Asiana 214A number of troubling comments have been made from dependable sources that give rise to the question – was the crash of Aviana flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) an accident waiting to happen?

Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame, now a CBS News aviation and safety analyst, told KCBS today that on-going construction at SFO may have “been a contributing factor impacting landings at the facility.”

The article went on with different consultants providing alternate possibilities.

Sullenberger’s comment was the one that stood out.

Yesterday, Capt. Rodrigo Ribeiro, identified as a commercial pilot by Fox News, said in an interview with Greta Southern that the PAPI (precision approach path indicator) may have been out of service, and that the glide slope that pilots would see in their cockpit as another landing aid “was out of service.” He explained that the pilots would be flying visually and that it can be hard to judge distance when over water.

Since that time, additional information has come in from a variety of sources confirming that the PAPI was out of service, as well as the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and navigational glide slope, on runway 28L.

Is it a coincidence that witnesses are reporting a steeper angle of descent that normal, and that it’s obvious from the tail strike against the sea wall that the plane was obviously at the wrong altitude at the wrong time? (see SFO plane crash animation from LiveLeak below).

Was the flying public placed at risk unnecessarily?

The lack of navigational landing aids is a hot issue on the Professional Pilots Rumor Network (PPRuNe). While many of their members say that the flight crew should be able to land based on visual flight rules, the lack of aids combined with a crew possibly weary from a long international flight could be a major factor.

Long time PPRuNe member “Locked door” writes:

I departed SFO a few hours before this tragic accident in a heavy jet. 

Our approach to SFO was ‘interesting’ to say the least. It was the usual, over the field and downwind at 11000 ft, full speedbrake and lots of flap to get down before the inevitable early turn to base. 
Cleared for a visual on 28L maintaining own separation from an A320 joining visually on 28R. 
High ROD to catch up with the ideal vertical approach path while turning final while watching the other jet. 
28L LOC transmitting so followed that, back to Vref+5 early to avoid overtaking the A320 on 28R but end up alongside.

Below 1000ft the (local) A320 flying visually on the right wanders off the centreline towards us. TCAS TA goes bananas but RA inhibited below 800ft. We quickly discuss going around before he corrects back towards his centreline. Look forwards to see four whites on the PAPI’s (I had been concentrating looking right at the VERY close A320 for approx 10 secs). 

Reduce thrust, set 1000ft ROD, regain profile by 200ft, flare and touch down.

All this after a ten hour flight when it’s past 4am on my body clock. How nice it would have been to fly a nice lazy ILS instead. 

It’s an accident waiting to happen, and it did.

Another long time PPRuNe member writes:

 I don’t think anyone is arguing against the fact that airline pilots should be able to cope with a visual approach with no g/s info. However, would it be safer to have functioning PAPIs at a LH international destination when conducting visual approaches? Of course. And safety is the name of the game, especially when conducting close proximity parallel approaches with variable set ups.

And in another post in the same thread says:

I am frankly staggered that an international airfield is allowed to operate in such a fashion, no ILS no PAPIS and frequent very high feed-ins due to a compressed and difficult airspace situation. There is a lot more to this tragedy than the initial reaction implies.

Both of these members have been contacted by NFS for more information, but neither has replied by publication time. While they are both active members of PPRuNe with many posts to their names, their credentials can not be firmly established.

However, it does appear that a growing amount of ‘buzz’ is pointing the finger at the lack of navigation aids as a potential factor in the San Francisco crash of Asiana 214.

If that’s the case, should SFO have been… and will it continue to be… allowed to function without these navigation systems in place?


Animation of San Francisco plane crash: Asiana 214

 Top photo credit: Adam Fagen

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