San Francisco’s Boeing 777 Crash: Why It Was Survivable

Just two of the 307 people aboard Asiana Flight 214 died in the fiery wreck on the runway. But it's not divine luck. How pilots, crews and airports prepare for these rare but devastating crashes

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Looking at the burnt, shattered hull of the Boeing 777 jet that crashed upon landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, it’s tempting to say the survival of all but two of the 307 passengers and crew was a miracle. The jumbo jet came in at a frighteningly low altitude after a long trans-Pacific flight from South Korea and then, according to passenger reports, seconds before landing, smashed into the edge of the airport runway, tearing off its tail before spinning on its belly. A fireball erupted, shrouding the plane in clouds of black smoke as rescue crews ran to the scene and passengers climbed out through aircraft doors and the holes that had been ripped into the hull.

The fire eventually incinerated the aircraft’s core with such intensity that it burned through much of the roof. But by then, everyone had gotten out alive, except for two 16-year-old Chinese students — Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia — whose bodies were found on the tarmac. The survival of so many in such dire circumstances does seem like divine luck. But aviation experts point out that fatal jumbo-jet crashes are very rare. The last one in the U.S. happened more than 10 years ago in 2001, when a plane crashed in a New York City neighborhood.

In the meantime, we have been amazed to see passengers walk away from crumpled, singed wrecks like the Asiana plane or Air France Flight 358, which turned into a fireball after overshooting a Toronto runway in 2005, or another Boeing 777 that crashed on landing at London’s Heathrow airport five years ago, but saw no fatalities.

While more than 100 people were injured in Saturday’s crash, some seriously, these relatively good outcomes typically happen after what are called “low-impact survivable” incidents when the plane has slowed to 140 or 150 m.p.h. (225 to 240 km/h), are due in part to changes in airplane construction to include better safety doors, seat technology, exit chutes, fireproofing and incident protocols. “Thirty years of design improvements have made a huge difference in the ability to get everyone off the plane in less than two minutes,” explains Larry Rooney, a veteran pilot, National Transportation Safety Board–trained accident investigator and executive vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

(MORE: Photo: Inside the San Francisco Plane Crash)

In addition to plane modifications, emergency-response crews are equipped with ever better technology. The first task of responders at a fiery crash site is to secure escape paths for victims using foam and water. “You establish where the fire is and attack from a downwind position,” explains Tom Kinton, who has had many roles running Boston’s Logan Airport over his 35-year career, including director of aviation and is now a strategic consultant with ICF SH&E, an aviation consulting firm. “You want to push the fuel away from the victims coming down the chute and buffer the route with foam,” he says. New fire trucks typically carry 2,000 gal. (7,570 L) of water, and many are equipped with infrared cameras to see through fog and scan the fuselage for hot spots. “They can even pierce the fuselage, and so you can put your [fire-retardant] agent where you think the fire is rather than guessing,” says Kinton.

And then there’s the matter of figuring out how many people they’re trying to find, which is crucial and has been aided somewhat by cell phones and other computer technology. The rescue crews will ask for the plane’s manifest immediately. “You’re looking to mirror that manifest, find how many passengers just got off and ran, how many got picked up and are at hospitals. It takes time and it’s got to be accurate because the crews that are risking their lives to go on the airplane won’t stop looking until everyone is accounted for.” Kinton recalls a terrible 1982 crash of a DC-10 in Boston, where two days after divers had stopped looking for survivors, endangering their own safety in the frigid waters of Boston Harbor, a family came looking for their husband and son who were not registered. “We went back into the water, but we never found them.”

Airport directors, airline manufacturers and emergency-crew leaders around the world will soon get a chance to pore over the data now being collected in San Francisco about everything from the unique mechanics of that plane, to the psychological state of the crew and the exact metrics of the local emergency response measured in seconds. For most, it’ll be a kind of endless dress rehearsal as they continually refine their local protocols to account for every permutation of disaster. And it is likely to take years to name the probable cause of this particular disaster in an official NTSB report.

(PHOTOS: Boeing 777 Crash-Lands at San Francisco Airport)

Some cases, especially ones like this, where the weather was good and both the airline and the plane model has a good safety record, can be particularly difficult. “One of the things they taught us in accident school is to never fall in love with a theory, the thing that you think [is the cause] at the onset might not be.” Which is why Rooney cautions against linking this Boeing 777 crash with the Boeing 777 incident that happened, also on landing, in London in 2008. After an extensive investigation by British authorities, which included researchers recreating the exact temperature and structural conditions of the engine fuel tubes that they believe became clogged with ice causing the crash, worldwide guidelines were issued to prevent future instances of what was a very-difficult-to-replicate confluence of events, temperature changes and engine construction.

“Every aircraft is unique,” says Rooney. Even if they are the same model of plane, it could have one of several types of engines manufactured by different companies, he explains. And there are other things to consider, including the amount of wear and tear on that plane by the number of cycles — takeoffs and landings — it has undergone in its lifetime. Long-range jets like the “Triple 7” tend to have fewer of those cycles than other planes. And of course there are human factors at work as well, which are investigated by specially trained NTSB experts. “You don’t just walk in and say it was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a lead pipe,” says Rooney. “It’s a very regimented process.”

One thing that the NTSB’s investigators will evaluate is the fatigue levels of the crew and their experience with this particular aircraft.  In January of 2014, sweeping new rules will go into effect in the United States regulating the number of hours pilots can fly based on the latest science indicating not only how many consecutive hours  a pilot fly before encountering fatigue related cognitive decline, but when those hours are logged. “Operating between 11pm and 6am takes a very different toll than daytime hours,” says Rooney whose trade association lobbied for the changes.  “The new rules will be a really good thing for the industry, the crews won’t be as exhausted.” They also have pushed for pilots to have more experience in the cockpit before being licensed. Then there’s flight time. The pilot in Asiana crash apparently had less than 50 hours flight time in the Boeing 777. While Rooney is loathe to speculate about this particular crash until all the data has been analyzed by the NTSB, he says that the investigators will be looking at the level of experience of the crew.  “There’s absolutely nothing that substitutes for experience whether you’re talking about being a surgeon, or a pilot or even in a marriage,” he says.

In most cases, response teams around the country who will be studying the reports coming out of San Francisco will go their entire careers without encountering anything like yesterday’s crash. “You pray and you hope it doesn’t happen. You drill them, you train them, but it’s not like fighting house fires in a big city where those things happen all the time,” says Kinton. “Lots of airports send a ‘go team’ to any accident in the continental U.S. because that’s the closest any of them will get to an accident.” Kinton gave his teams, which were usually made up of a firefighter, police officer and operations person, a sobering directive for their visits to other airport crash sites: “Visualize this at Logan.”

MORE: Recap of the Tragedy in San Francisco

30 comments
untamable1
untamable1

NO MENTION OF THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS?! WOW.

 I GUESS THAT WOULDN'T BE WORTHY OF MENTIONING AS ANOTHER REASON WHY/HOW ALL PASSENGERS ARE ABLE TO EXIT THE BURNING PLANE IN LESS THAN 2 MINUTES? AFTER ALL, MOST PEOPLE VIEW AIRLINE ATTENDANTS MERELY AS AIR HOSTESSES/SKY WAITRESSES/ETC. LAME!!!!

GraemeSimpson
GraemeSimpson

Landed at SFO a few times - most notable was coming in on 27 with a China Airlines 747 in parallel on 28. This seemed to be converging on us. Just before landing it powered up and aborted the landing. Clear blue skies, vision for kilometres, light breeze...worrying. Have flown round the world a few times on Air New Zealand 777s - great airplanes.

ian.mcleod1975
ian.mcleod1975

Expert? 35 years? ARFF crews find the holes and maintain rescue paths first. People don't try to escape into fire so there is no point attacking it first. We don't attack from downwind. You'd have thick smoke blowing in your face, reduce range on your systems AND increase the risk of RUNNING SOMEONE OVER while you're shooting. This expert needs to get his head examined. It's idiots like this who create the problems in the transportation industry and the public should fear the media's dependence on them.

BrianReynolds
BrianReynolds

@ian.mcleod1975I'm thinking that "downwind" was an error on the writer's part or possibly a misquote.  I'm not a firefighter, and even I questioned the "downwind" remark.  It just didn't make any sense to me.

If you've ever been quoted or interviewed by a reporter, you know that what gets printed or shown on TV is NEVER exactly what you said.


DustyThompson
DustyThompson

My 2 observations...  1.  Way way way short of the landing threshold.  About a 1/4 mile short.  The pilot flew a perfectly good aircraft into the ground 2. If it ain't a Boing, I ain't a going...

Lastly, 12 people died from gunshot wounds in Chicago this weekend...  0bama is bringing this to the rest of us, at our own cost..

greyngold
greyngold

@DustyThompson Honestly, what the hell is wrong with you? You need some kind of insane partisan jab on an article having nothing to do with partisanship?

Seriously, I don't care if I'm feeding the pathetic troll here. Comments like this from people like this are a cancer. 

RobinDonaldDeVallon
RobinDonaldDeVallon

I don´t think it´s proper to think abt safety or equipment failures but simply abt command control... Thát pilot should never have been at the controls were it not that his most superior let him.... ´Only 43 hrs ??!! and only first try on a landing on thát big plane ?? Thankx Bob Benjamin, Steve Swain and the other "pilots"... you share my "experience"....    Donah..//

RobertBenjamin
RobertBenjamin

Two observations:  1. Pilots first landing attempt in a triple 7?????? Airline will cease to exist. 2. If I still flew, I would insure that i flew on a triple 7.  Thank you Boeing for all you've done for aviation for all these may years.  Crashes are horrible events but as long as you learn from them and continue to make improvements in safety, they become necessary evils.

SamIAm
SamIAm

@RobertBenjamin

My understanding from other reports is: 

1) He was new to the 777, but not flying in general, with many hours in the 747.  However, his lack of experience in this air frame can't be discounted as a factor.

2) This was not his first landing, but his first one at SF.  

3) There were 2 crews on this plane (due to flight length) and at least one with more 777 hours was in the seat beside him, although I'm not sure where the relief crew was located during the incident.

I'm sure the NTSB will get to the bottom of this, but it always takes months before they release their report.

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

Two observations:  1.  This pilot appears to have totally blown this approach.  He was the least qualified pilot onboard on this aircraft type (Boeing 777), with 43 hours.  2.  The Boeing Company should probably get enormous kudos for the survivability of this aircraft.  Everything seems to have worked as planned except the pilot.  Amazing!

heartpursuer
heartpursuer

"...does seem like divine luck."  Classic oxymoron.

IamDanceswithdachshunds
IamDanceswithdachshunds

Throttles all the way at ... IDLE so late in the approach???  Unless the guy was Bob Hoover or there was a micro-burst wind shear nearby, it simply SCREAMS "cowboy" at the controls.  Whichever pilot was actually in control - should NEVER pilot  another commercial passenger flight ever again.

I want to know what the 'numbers' were back at the outer marker. My bet is too high, too fast and barely descending which, for a safe pilot, ~would have been~ cause for eating your ego and declaring a missed approach.

debussy0
debussy0

JUST 2?? Really? How sensitive of you! 

numag1
numag1

The only reason most people survived is because the plane was already at ground level when it crashed, and it traveling very slowly (for an aircraft).  Nothing magical. But you've got to give the crew a lot of credit for getting the people off the plane quickly and efficiently.

Jared
Jared like.author.displayName 1 Like

This was a horrible accident, but it is absolutely amazing how far technology has come. To think about how it was not very long ago when an incident like this would spell certain death for everyone on the plane. It proves how much we are capable of as people when we use our energy for the betterment of mankind instead of selfish needs. 

JohnnyWhite
JohnnyWhite

In the future, the death toll may be considerably worse thanks to the plastic-resin composite construction of the Boeing Dreamliner 787. A crash landing like this would likely have killed more than 50 percent of the passengers and crew. Plastic does not "crumple" and absorb the impact forces like aluminum body construction. Plastic resin composite materials give off toxic fumes that kill. In most all fires, people die of smoke inhalation before the fire ever reaches their bodies. The Dreamliner 787 is sure to become known as the “Nightmare Liner.”

MrBoo
MrBoo

@JohnnyWhite  Did you know that many NATURAL fibers like wool and cotton actually are worse then synthetics?  It amazes me how little people know and yet try to sound important.

JohnnyWhite
JohnnyWhite

"Mr.BigBooBoo": Your incorrect grammar and spelling of "worse than synthetics" sucks and therefore your credibility is "suspect."  Have you ever lit a piece of plastic; then watched it burn?  The flame is nearly impossible to extinguish and gives off toxic black smoke.  Your ignorance is astounding.

IamDanceswithdachshunds
IamDanceswithdachshunds

@MrBoo @JohnnyWhite Bull!  Go ahead - right now. Find a piece of wool - felt - and try burning it with butane lighter.   As soon as you take the lighter away the fire - GOES OUT!

You can can keep your polyester hydrocarbon suit and I'll stick to wool - let's see who can make it out of a burning inferno alive.

Champagne
Champagne

Terrible accident. The expert denoted in the article knows what he's talking about. It's all about investigations at this point. Boeing, the builder, will not be excluded from any interrogations. Too bad this accident happened.

HarryDangler
HarryDangler

I guess all they have to do know is engineer better pilots.  This is a major fiasco.

mahadragon
mahadragon

@HarryDangler The pilot of this flight was apparently a new pilot. He was still learning.

SamIAm
SamIAm

@mahadragon @HarryDangler 

My understanding from other reports is: 

1) He was new to the 777, but not flying in general, with many hours in the 747.  However, his lack of experience in this air frame can't be discounted as a factor.

2) This was not his first landing, but his first one at SF.  

3) There were 2 crews on this plane (due to flight length) and at least one with more 777 hours was in the seat beside him, although I'm not sure where the relief crew was located during the incident.

I'm sure the NTSB will get to the bottom of this, but it always takes months before they release their report.

davrus
davrus

What is inside the plane that burns so fiercely ? Fuel is in the wings and they were not damaged, did not burn, so it wasn't fuel.  Surely they don't use flameable plastics in the interior construction ?

IamDanceswithdachshunds
IamDanceswithdachshunds

@davrus  My guess is that there was a lot of exposed electrical wiring shorting out and turning the cabin into a toaster oven.

vbscript2
vbscript2

The wings weren't damaged? Really? You might want to take another look at the pictures and video of that thing. Also, the 777-200ER (as with all other models of the 777) has a center fuel tank in the lower fuselage in addition to the left and right tanks.

HarryDangler
HarryDangler

@davrus You have got to be kidding.  Flammable plastic is ALL they use.  Where have you been?

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