San Francisco crash proves Boeing 777’s safety, experts say

8 July 2013
By Tereza Pultarova
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The fuselage of the Boeing 777 aircraft that crashed at San Francisco airport remained largely intact

The fuselage of the Boeing 777 aircraft that crashed at San Francisco airport remained largely intact

The safety features of Boeing 777 "helped to prevent" a much worse disaster during Saturday’s crash of Asiana Airlines aircraft at the San Francisco airport, according to aerospace analysts.

The event, which killed two teenagers and resulted in serious injury to many of the plane’s 291 passengers, is not thought likely to pose a substantial setback for the aircraft manufacturer, as it presented a clear evidence that the safety engineering stood up well, considering the various stresses.

Despite the frightening image, the flame retardant cabin interior managed to keep the fire at bay long enough for most passengers to evacuate the wrecked plane. Moreover, the fuselage remained mostly intact during the crash landing and subsequent sliding of the wreck over the runway.

"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 plane."

The San Francisco accident was the first fatal crash of Boeing 777 since the wide-body, twin-engine jet airliner entered commercial service in 1995. "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."

The first hints from the investigation seem to confirm the presumption that mechanical failure of the plane was not guilty of the accident.

Just hours after the accident - the first airliner crash in the United States since 2009 - Asiana Airlines President and CEO Yoon Young-doo confirmed 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. The crashed plane was powered by engines from Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said on Sunday there was no evidence of problems with the flight or the landing until seven 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.

Information later emerged the pilot who was in charge of the aircraft during landing was still in training on Boeing 777 and was manoeuvring the aircraft under supervision.

San Francisco airport has said the Glide Path system, designed to give pilots exact information and navigation during the descent, was turned off for maintenance on Saturday. However, according to aircraft safety experts, this technology is not essential for safe landing when the weather and visibility is good.

"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.

Some have suggested pilots in general might have grown accustomed to have the convenience of the Glide Path at hand even in good weather, as the technology has been around for decades. "The pilots would have had to rely solely on visual cues to fly the proper glide path to the runway, and not have had available to them the electronic information that they typically have even in good weather at most major airports," said Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot who gained fame with a successful crash landing on the Hudson River in 2009.

Glide Path is a computerised system based on calculations of the plane’s path of descent that transmits information form the airport to the cockpit in real time. Even though it is usually available at all major airports even in good weather, it is routine to switch it off for maintenance from time to time as pilots have several other systems at hand aboard.

The previous major incident involving Boeing 777 took place at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2008 when a plane landed short of runway. All people aboard survived and investigators later said a fuel blockage caused by the release of ice that had built up during the flight from Beijing was guilty of the accident. The discovery led to changes in the design of the British Rolls-Royce engines used on some 777s.

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