Q&A: Aviation attorney discusses 777 crash

The National Transportation Safety Board has said it will probably be months before investigators can fully determine why Asiana Flight 214, a Boeing 777, crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two Chinese teenagers and injuring more than 100.

Aviation attorney Bob Clifford said the fact that only two people died is nothing short of a miracle, and NTSB officials have everything they need to work with to solve this case.

The Chicago attorney said his firm has represented clients in commercial airline crashes in the United States since 1978, and handled international air disaster cases. His firm was lead counsel in the Flight 241 Alaska Air crash in the Pacific Ocean off Los Angeles in 2000 as well as in the 2003 Turkish Airlines crash landing in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam involving a faulty altimeter. His firm also represents five families in the Boeing 737 Caribbean Airlines Flight 523 that overran the runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Guyana in 2011.

Clifford obtained a $1.2 billion settlement in 2012 on behalf of business interests and insurance companies who suffered property damage in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Q. What’s remarkable about this crash?

A. A crash happens when the pilot in command is not in control of the aircraft upon contact. In most cases nobody survives. Frequently, the information from the digital flight recorder or the cockpit voice recorder is lost or damaged beyond use.

In this case, the NTSB has both the DFR and CVR, both pilots are alive, and there’s incredible amateur video that pretty clearly shows the plane’s tail clipped the sea wall on the edge of the runaway.

Q. What’s a plausible scenario?

A. My opinion would be that for whatever reasons these pilots failed to monitor their air speed. They (aerodynamically) stalled the plane immediately before touchdown, and unsucessfully tried to power up before impact.

Q. Asiana, a Korean airline that circles the globe, claims it found no mechanical failures. Does that mean pilot error was involved?

A. It’s too early to call it pilot error.

Q. How did they get into that situation? Did the technology fail them or did they fail to properly use the technology they were relying on to fly and land the aircraft?

A. Airplane system failures could include engines, engine control systems, flight control systems and radio altimeters.

The pilots may have been going too slowly, may have had the wrong altitude, they may have had the wrong pitch, or angle of approach.

At SFO there’s a requirement on the runway for a “tip-toe” landing that has to do with noise and that impacts the final approach, the air speed and how the engines were running when they got to landing strip 28L. If you don’t have those things right it requires the pilots to do a go-around.

They may not have been entirely familiar with SFO. This was a short landing. Instead of having plenty of runaway behind the tail of the plane when it touches down, here you have no runway behind it. This pilot was short: He had a target and missed it. Had there not been a seawall, maybe the crash wouldn’t have occurred.

Crew fatigue and the culture or protocol in the cockpit will be examined, along with who was actually flying the approach and how much automation was relied upon.

Q. Tell us about Asiana’s Boeing 777:

A. The Boeing 777-200ER (extended range) is one of the most widely used planes for international flights in the world. This particular plane came off its first flight in February 2006.

That aircraft is like a Corvette, you step on the gas and it gets up and goes.

Q. Why was there a fire, and what happened next?

A. You could have had electrical malfunctions that sparked a flame in the plane, and some of the fire-retardant material could have been inadequate.

The flight crew did a fine job getting people off the plane; the pilots may have let us down. So many people survived because the plane didn’t cartwheel, which is what happened to United Airlines Flight 232 when it crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, where 112 people died and 188 survived. Many of those victims didn’t die of trauma; they were knocked unconscious and had survivable injuries but were stuck in their seats and couldn’t get out and died of smoke inhalation.

In the Asiana crash, you didn’t have impact with the ground at full throttle. And you didn’t have a plane going into the water, as in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash off of San Francisco in January 2000.

The two girls who died were 16-year-old Chinese students found outside the plane – somehow they got ejected.

While there were numerous survivors, all of these people are scarred for life by this experience whether their bodies are scarred or not.

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