Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Hero of Asiana Flight 214

Yesterday (Saturday, July 6, 2013) saw what could have been a true civil aviation disaster: the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 from Shanghai, China to San Francisco, California, via Seoul, South Korea. There were 307 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft. 305 are alive today to tell the harrowing tale of the final moments of flight and their miraculous survival.

Two sadly perished. They were Chinese teenagers Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, both just sixteen years old. The two young women were coming to the United States for summer camp, on what (I'm assuming) was their first visit to our country. If either of their families ever happen upon this post, I hope they accept my sincere sympathies. As many as 182 others were injured in the crash, some severely.

Known details and evidence available to this point points to pilot error as the cause of the accident. In fairness to the aircrew, the investigation is just beginning and they might be absolved. I'm not an expert, just a layman aviation fan. There was a hero yesterday, but it wasn't a human.

Yesterday's hero was a Boeing 777-200ER, customer/line number 29171/553 ("553"), registration HL7742.

The 777 was introduced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes in the mid-1990s. The aircraft type made its first service flight with United Airlines on June 7, 1995. 1,113 of the planes have been delivered to customers as of June 2013. At the time of its introduction, the 777 was the largest twin-engine plane ever built, and still holds that claim to fame.

A little more than five years ago, I had the fortune to fly on one. I had to go to Denver on a business trip; at the time, there were no direct Pittsburgh-to-Denver flights. I opted for a United flight via Chicago-O'Hare as the Chicago-Denver leg was going to be on a Boeing 767; I don't often get to fly on wide-body aircraft as most of my air travel is domestic, short haul trips. (Aside: I'm also partial to United for their "Channel 9" - the inflight entertainment channel that you can listen in on the air-to-ground comms between the pilots and air traffic control. It's an awesome feature for the aviation buff!)

Well, our flight was delayed due to maintenance problems. United decided to substitute the aircraft with a 777 they had to reposition to Denver, so we had a 767 passenger load for a plane that would have been maybe two-thirds full into the 777 and filled barely half of it. The ground staff didn't even bother reprinting people's boarding passes & seat assignments - there was so much room, most people (myself included) had a row or most of a row to themselves. It's a fantastic aircraft. I can't wait to fly on one again, and the next time I have to fly internationally, I'm intentionally going to try and find a flight normally served by a 777.

553 made her first flight on February 2, 2005. By all measurements, she was a young aircraft. The final assembly of the Boeing 777 is completed in the company's Everett, Washington facility in the Seattle area. The factory is the world's largest building by volume. Planes built there depart from the adjacent Paine Field.

Prior to yesterday, there had just been two previous "hull loss" accidents involving 777s; accidents that resulted in the write-off or destruction of the aircraft. One of these was a cockpit fire while the aircraft was on the ground and at an airport gate. No one was injured.

The second was the crash of British Airways Flight 38 on approach to London's Heathrow Airport on January 17, 2008. That accident, involving the 777-200ER 30314/342 ("342"), was similar to the Asiana crash in that the plane hit the ground short of the runway during a failed landing. Its cause was determined to be fuel starvation caused by ice crystals in the fuel. The pilots, in that case, were helpless.

On British Airways Flight 38, there were 152 people aboard. All 152 survived.

Two in-flight, on approach accidents for the Boeing 777. 459 total people aboard. 457 survivors. That is incredible.

An amateur video of the Asiana crash has been obtained by CNN. You can clearly see 553's tail strike the ground and separate. Then, amidst the smoke and dust, you can see the fuselage and the starboard wing flip back up into the air down the field until the plane settled onto its belly. If you look at the pre-fire pictures of the aircraft, it came through the impact and aftermath amazingly intact.

Everybody aboard that plane who survived owes their life to that aircraft. Everybody aboard the 2008 crash owes the same.

To every engineer, draftsman, etc. who worked on the concept and design of the 777, to every man and woman who worked at Boeing suppliers building the components who went into both 342 and 553, to the hard-working men and women of Boeing Commercial Airplanes at Everett who formed every sheet metal panel, who fastened every bolt and rivet, who ran every wire - you are all to be saluted and commended.

I hope all of those men and women are smiling and filled with pride that when the lives of 459 people depended on their accomplishments, 457 of them were brought home. That's 99.56 percent, if you're counting. I'm sure all of them are saddened as I am at the loss of two passengers, but the products of their handiwork did all that could be expected of them and more in crashes.

Well done. So very, very well done.


  1. Anonymous10:05 AM

    A kind and fine post if there ever was one...


  2. This is awesome!



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