Skip to comments.Korean Air Disaster
Posted on 07/10/2013 6:34:11 AM PDT by Don Corleone
Old time freepers will know that I am a retired airline/military pilot of 40 years experience. Guys like us stay in touch and swap experiences. It is how we learned as youngsters and how we stayed alive into retirement. This revelation is nothing new to those of us who have been around the pattern a few times. Nothing new at all. Read it and make your own decision.
After I retired from UAL as a Standards Captain on the 400, I got a job as
a simulator instructor working for Alteon (a Boeing subsidiary) at Asiana. When
I first got there, I was shocked and surprised by the lack of basic piloting
skills shown by most of the pilots. It is not a normal situation with normal
progression from new hire, right seat, left seat taking a decade or two. One big
difference is that ex-Military pilots are given super-seniority and progress to
the left seat much faster. Compared to the US, they also upgrade fairly rapidly
because of the phenomenal growth by all Asian air carriers. By the way, after
about six months at Asiana, I was moved over to KAL and found them to be
identical. The only difference was the color of the uniforms and airplanes. I
worked in Korea for 5 long years and although I found most of the people to be
very pleasant, its a minefield of a work environment ... for them and for us
One of the first things I learned was that the pilots kept a web-site and
reported on every training session. I dont think this was officially sanctioned
by the company, but after one or two simulator periods, a database was building
on me (and everyone else) that told them exactly how I ran the sessions, what to
expect on checks, and what to look out for. For example; I used to open an aft
cargo door at 100 knots to get them to initiate an RTO and I would brief them on
it during the briefing. This was on the B-737 NG and many of the captains were
coming off the 777 or B744 and they were used to the Master Caution System being
inhibited at 80 kts. Well, for the first few days after I started that, EVERYONE
rejected the takeoff. Then, all of a sudden they all got it and continued the
takeoff (in accordance with their manuals). The word had gotten out. I figured
it was an overall PLUS for the training program.
We expat instructors were forced upon them after the amount of fatal
accidents (most of the them totally avoidable) over a decade began to be noticed
by the outside world. They were basically given an ultimatum by the FAA,
Transport Canada, and the EU to totally rebuild and rethink their training
program or face being banned from the skies all over the world. They hired
Boeing and Airbus to staff the training centers. KAL has one center and Asiana
has another. When I was there (2003-2008) we had about 60 expats conducting
training KAL and about 40 at Asiana. Most instructors were from the USA, Canada,
Australia, or New Zealand with a few stuffed in from Europe and Asia. Boeing
also operated training centers in Singapore and China so they did hire some
instructors from there.
This solution has only been partially successful but still faces ingrained
resistance from the Koreans. I lost track of the number of highly qualified
instructors I worked with who were fired because they tried to enforce normal
standards of performance. By normal standards, I would include being able to
master basic tasks like successfully shoot a visual approach with 10 kt
crosswind and the weather CAVOK. I am not kidding when I tell you that
requiring them to shoot a visual approach struck fear in their hearts ... with
good reason. Like this Asiana crew, it didnt compute that you needed to
be a 1000 AGL at 3 miles and your sink rate should be 600-800 Ft/Min. But,
after 5 years, they finally nailed me. I still had to sign my name to their
training and sometimes if I just couldnt pass someone on a check, I had no
choice but to fail them. I usually busted about 3-5 crews a year and the
resistance against me built. I finally failed an extremely incompetent crew and
it turned out he was the a high-ranking captain who was the Chief Line Check
pilot on the fleet I was teaching on. I found out on my next monthly trip home
that KAL was not going to renew my Visa. The crew I failed was given another
check and continued a fly while talking about how unfair Captain Brown was.
Any of you Boeing glass-cockpit guys will know what I mean when I describe
these events. I gave them a VOR approach with an 15 mile arc from the IAF. By
the way, KAL dictated the profiles for all sessions and we just administered
them. He requested two turns in holding at the IAF to get set up for the
approach. When he finally got his nerve up, he requested Radar Vectors
to final. He could have just said he was ready for the approach and I would have
cleared him to the IAF and then Cleared for the approach and he could have
selected Exit Hold and been on his way. He was already in LNAV/VNAV PATH. So,
I gave him vectors to final with a 30 degree intercept. Of course, he
failed to Extend the FAF and he couldnt understand why it would not intercept
the LNAV magenta line when he punched LNAV and VNAV. He made three approaches
and missed approaches before he figured out that his active waypoint was Hold
at XYZ. Every time he punched LNAV, it would try to go back to the IAF
... just like it was supposed to do. Since it was a check, I was not allowed (by
their own rules) to offer him any help. That was just one of about half dozen
major errors I documented in his UNSAT paperwork. He also failed to put in ANY
aileron on takeoff with a 30-knot direct crosswind (again, the weather was
dictated by KAL).
This Asiana SFO accident makes me sick and while I am surprised there are
not more, I expect that there will be many more of the same type accidents in
the future unless some drastic steps are taken. They are already required to
hire a certain percentage of expats to try to ingrain more flying expertise in
them, but more likely, they will eventually be fired too. One of the best
trainees I ever had was a Korean/American (he grew up and went to school in the
USA) who flew C-141s in the USAF. When he got out, he moved back to Korea and
got hired by KAL. I met him when I gave him some training and a check on the
B-737 and of course, he breezed through the training. I give him annual PCs for
a few years and he was always a good pilot. Then, he got involved with trying to
start a pilots union and when they tired to enforce some sort of duty rigs on
international flights, he was fired after being arrested and JAILED!
The Koreans are very very bright and smart so I was puzzled by their
inability to fly an airplane well. They would show up on Day 1 of training (an
hour before the scheduled briefing time, in a 3-piece suit, and shined shoes)
with the entire contents of the FCOM and Flight Manual totally memorized. But,
putting that information to actual use was many times impossible. Crosswind
landings are also an unsolvable puzzle for most of them. I never did figure it
out completely, but I think I did uncover a few clues. Here is my best guess.
First off, their educational system emphasizes ROTE memorization from the first
day of school as little kids. As you know, that is the lowest form of learning
and they act like robots. They are also taught to NEVER challenge authority and
in spite of the flight training heavily emphasizing CRM/CLR, it still exists
either on the surface or very subtly. You just cant change 3000 years of
The other thing that I think plays an important role is the fact that there
is virtually NO civil aircraft flying in Korea. Its actually illegal to own a
Cessna-152 and just go learn to fly. Ultra-lights and Powered Hang Gliders are
Ok. I guess they dont trust the people to not start WW III by flying 35 miles
north of Inchon into North Korea. But, they dont get the kids who grew up
flying (and thinking for themselves) and hanging around airports. They do
recruit some kids from college and send then to the US or Australia and get them
their tickets. Generally, I had better experience with them than with the
ex-Military pilots. This was a surprise to me as I spent years as a Naval
Aviator flying fighters after getting my private in light airplanes. I would get
experienced F-4, F-5, F-15, and F-16 pilots who were actually terrible pilots if
they had to hand fly the airplane. What a shock!
Finally, Ill get off my box and talk about the total flight hours they
claim. I do accept that there are a few talented and free-thinking pilots that I
met and trained in Korea. Some are still in contact and I consider them friends.
They were a joy! But, they were few and far between and certainly not the
Actually, this is a worldwide problem involving automation and the
auto-flight concept. Take one of these new first officers that got his ratings
in the US or Australia and came to KAL or Asiana with 225 flight hours. After
takeoff, in accordance with their SOP, he calls for the autopilot to be engaged
at 250 after takeoff. How much actual flight time is that? Hardly one minute.
Then he might fly for hours on the autopilot and finally disengage it (MAYBE?)
below 800 after the gear was down, flaps extended and on airspeed
(autothrottle). Then he might bring it in to land. Again, how much real flight
time or real experience did he get. Minutes! Of course, on the 777 or 747, its
the same only they get more inflated logbooks.
So, when I hear that a 10,000 hour Korean captain was vectored in for a
17-mile final and cleared for a visual approach in CAVOK weather, it raises the
hair on the back of my neck.
A retired Delta pilot and old friend of ours sent this to me in an email yesterday. I trust that the info is accurate, because I trust him.
I think that I’ll never fly on a Korean airline.
Its a good read, but remember, its just an anecdote. Very interesting.
Fantastic story. Made a copy to re-read. Very eye opening. Thanks for post this. Janey
Received the same e-mail from a retired Delta pilot friend as well. Looks like a pervasive, cultural problem. Yeah, I think I’ll skip flying on any Asia based airlines.
But if my wife ever does prevail on me to travel West of Hawaii, I will be sure to avoid these carriers regardless of cost!
For he benefit of other, who like myself, have ZERO, NADA, ZILCH understanding of all the technical aviation jargon in the article, I will translate:
DO NOT FLY K.A.L. OR ASIANNA
The voice recorder actually had the junior copilot strongly and frantically suggesting to the senior pilot that they were flying too low and should climb immediately. The senior pilot curtly overruled him by saying the instruments showed the altitude was fine.
Of course, we will never know what was going on in the junior copilot's mind, but the sequence of events suggests that he had strong reason to feel the altimeter was not functioning correctly and immediate countermeasures were necessary.
Thanks very much.
I had my husband read this, even though he hasn’t flown a plane in over 40 years: USN aircraft.
It made sense to him.
Asian airlines - great stewardesses, lousy pilots.
Wow! I tried to understand the mechanics and technology. Since I am not a commercial pilot I think I got it. Great explanation. Thanks!
Thanks for the write-up.
Our military pilots still have to do wrote stand-ups but they are also somehow educated to think. I don’t really know how the blend of Rote memorization they have to do and education to think is accomplished. I know their training is intense and comes through a fire hose.
I listened to a lecture by Gen. Krulak the other night. He was telling his story and said, “I was training and educating Marines in San Diego’ [before my second tour to Vietnam]. It struck me odd and he elaborated as if anticipating my question. Training is what we do to prepare people for what we know will happen. Education is what we do to prepare people for what we don’t know or can’t predict will happen. Put another way for me, Training teaches people to do without thinking much or any; Education teaches people to think.
I do a bit of adult education. I find students often only want to be told what to do. They are uncomfortable when they are made to think. Our education system has produced this now. Kids all pass because they are trained to take the tests and not educated to think.
OTOH,I have a great deal of experience in the training of physicians and surgeons,having worked at a large teaching affiliate of a major medical school for many years.That process,in brief,is fraught with bumps in the road and even "perils".Some of those "bumps",sadly,result in real harm coming to patients.It's easy for me to believe that there are parallels between the training of a physician and of a pilot...one of which is that,at some point,a person with nothing more than "classroom"...or "textbook"...familiarity with a procedure or maneuver is called upon to carry out said procedure/maneuver.I wonder if there's a better way to do it...either in hospitals or with an airline?
“...but remember, its just an anecdote...”
Would you prefer a “scientific study” commissioned by a governmental agency and performed by an academic?
To me, it reads like a very in-depth analysis done by a professional. Documented peer review (done by other outside, high time, varied experience pilot/instructors) would nail it down.
Here is that article
Gladwell included a chapter in his book “Outliers” on Korean pilots
He’s right. Most airline pilots have a few minutes of actual flying per flight. The rest simply being operating the computers. When I hear someone has 15,000 hours without an accident they have my respect, but that gets tempered with asking just how man of those hours were actual flying? Did they simply do the same flight 15,000 times? Most pilots spend their first few years hand flying something, so you know they know how but flying skills are perishable.
I agree. I just mean to say take EVERYTHING with a grain and suss it out as more details are confirmed. Scientific method and all. I think this story is spot on.
I have heard the same thing, in fact we hear the same thing every time KAL has an accident or incident. There was a story probably a decade ago where KAL flew several revenue trips in a 747 around Europe with only three operative engines.
re: high logbook time, little flight experience.
The airlines & insurance companies love “high time pilots”. However, as the article mentions, transport pilots spend most of their time at cruise, usually on auto-pilot and make one take-off and one landing every few hours to a long, straight, most often paved runway.
When I finished flying (mostly) helicopters with the USMC, the airlines had little interest in me or other military helo pilots with my flight hour totals. However, we usually had as many or more landings as flight hours. These landings were to small clearings in the woods, mountain pinnacles & ridge lines, near buildings & powerlines, on to a small platform on the back of a ship under way with your approach path at a 45 degree angle to the ship’s course. Some, like me, have more sling loads than landings or flight hours.
A sling load is a landing with a large weight/bundle hanging from the cargo hook. These loads (for me) varied from 11,000# concrete blocks to a VW bus (destined to be a target on a bombing range) to bales of famine relief food to a 1500 gallon water tank to lumber and so on. Some done at night in a confined LZ in the woods with one man with a flashlight wand ahead of you and one to the side.
Day & Night VFR and IFR time. But not enough flight experience to get interviewed by the airlines.
(Thanks for enduring my rant!)
(Full disclosure: If I had been hired by the airlines, I probably would have died of boredom.)
I can relate to that. LOL.
Also, it was a hillside, not a mountainside since 23 passengers and 3 crew survived.
The details of a 17 year ago plane crash fade with time, but that chilling account of a KAL copilot unable to convince his superior to avoid a looming disaster does not.
I used to fly KAL pretty regularly and haven't flown it since.
>>The European airlines hire pilots with no flying experience. <<
Which explains their demand for the fly by wire aircraft.
I have flown with a number of them over the years and have to say that when the pilot starts speaking over the com in a nice broad Australian accent I do tend to relax a bit more. Common on Singapore, Thai, and Cathay but not on any of the Chinese, Japanese, or Korean lines.
The story is consistent with what I’ve always heard about certain Asian airlines over my many years of experience in the industry. Creative thinking isn’t valued very highly. Add in the Confucian culture and rigid military-type discipline and you have all of the elements for never-ending safety problems.
Here is the approach they were attempting to shoot for KAL 801. If you can read this plate the approach flies over the navaid and out the opposite radial to a minimum descent altitude of 760 feet with the last portion of the descent happening 1.3 DME outbound from the station. I think they read the plate wrong and tried to get to 760 either at the navaid or 1.3 miles short of the navaid and put themselves into Nimitz Hill. The pictures of the wreckage showed the aircraft coming to a stop just to the north of the VOR antenna. Not good.
I did just hear an NTSB statement that the crew of the ASIANA mishap cycled through a bunch of different autopilot modes attempting to get set up for the visual including several auto throttle modes. I am betting in the end they kicked off the auto throttles without realizing it and that is how they got so slow. Still no excuse for the PNF or PF to not catch that.
Conversely, look at all the US legislators with Ivy League degrees (most of them), then think about what how they vote and what they believe in. Education to me is failing. It really isn’t worth the expense today.
I am a retired ATC out of SFO. I worked SFO Bay Approach at NCT (Area B)and we dealt with foreign pilots on a regular basis.
If you get a couple of them on frequency at the same time and you are having a problem with them reading back your clearances in a manner that you think is correct and you have to keep going back to them to verify, you can go down the shitter pretty quick.
That is one issue.
I cant verify, but I have heard that the requirement to speak English (the universal language in ATC) is very lax. This would not surprise me from my experience. A few have told me that it is just a matter of them checking a box on a form.
Here is an issue that is not being brought up and might be a factor in this accident. Cockpit/Crew Resource Management CRM is a bit different in the Asian Culture. There is a tendency to not question your superiors. This can have disastrous consequences in the cockpit.
I am not sure about the dynamics that were in play on this flight with training going on etc... but someone should have said something sooner.
I have always felt that it would be very very easy for a reporter looking for a story to get a scanner and monitor the traffic at SFO or any other international airport and document just how bad the language barrier is.
Also read just now that at least one of the pilots that was being interviewed was using a translator. HMmmmmmmm..... That does not surprise me at all.