WASHINGTON – A comment Monday by the head of the National Transportation Safety Board sounded reasonable to the average ear, but for aviation crash experts there was an immediate connection to a remarkable 1999 crash of a Boeing 747 just after takeoff from London.
“We are looking at communication between the two crew members,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said from the San Francisco scene where a South Korean Boeing 777 crashed Saturday, killing two teenage girls bound from China to a summer camp in the U.S.
For some aviation experts, examining cockpit communication brought to mind what went wrong on Dec. 22, 1999, when Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 plunged to the ground in a village near London.
The investigation that followed, even when described in the terse terms used in such reports, revealed a remarkable dynamic in the cockpit that has been linked to the hierarchical structure of the Korean culture. When the plane took off after dark, the pilot’s cockpit indicator called an artificial horizon wasn’t working. The co-pilot’s was, as was an auxiliary artificial horizon dial located on the dashboard between them.
When the pilot began to execute a planned banked turn, the horizon instrument in front of him didn’t register that the plane had tilted on an appropriate angle. Unable to see that the plane already had banked, he continued to bank farther, even though a warning buzzer sounded nine times in the cockpit.
“There was no audible acknowledgment from any crew member regarding these warnings,” said the final investigative report of the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the U.K.’s equivalent of the NTSB.
The plane’s wing tore into the ground. All four crew members died. The plane’s pilot was Park Duk-kyu, a 57-year-old former fighter pilot in the South Korean Air Force. The first officer was Yoon Ki-sik, 33, who had far less experience.
The investigative report said that Park was irritated by their late departure from London. The report said that though Yoon was communicating correct information to the tower, Park spoke at him in a “derogatory” fashion, saying, “Make sure you understand what ground control is saying before you speak.”
Seconds later, he barked: “Answer them! They are asking how long the delay will be.”
“By making these comments, it is considered that the commander contributed to setting a tone which discouraged further input from other crew members, especially the first officer,” the report said.
When the plane went into its ill-fated bank less than a minute into the flight, the first officer said nothing, even though the instrument in front of him indicated that the plane was turned almost sideways, the report said.
Author Malcolm Gladwell examined the Korean culture’s influence in airplane cockpits in his 2008 book “Outliers.”
“Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s,” Gladwell said just after the book came out. “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.”
In their recommendations, British investigators called on Korean Air to revise its company culture and training, “to promote a more free atmosphere between the captain and the first officer.”
There has been no indication or suggestion that the crash of Asiana Flight 214 on Saturday was caused by a communication failure in the cockpit. The NTSB would review what the pilot and co-pilot said regardless of their nationality.