Were Asiana Pilots Caught In The FLCH ‘Trap’?

By John Croft, Guy Norris
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
July 22, 2013
Credit: NTSB

Highly experienced Boeing widebody pilots have independently determined that an autoflight mode called Flight Level Change may explain why Asiana Flight 214 hit the sea wall ahead of Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport July 6.

The experts, including a Boeing 777 fleet captain, tell Aviation Week that entry into Flight Level Change (FLCH) during the approach would have caused the engines to remain at idle despite the pilots having set the autothrottles to maintain 137 kt., the target approach speed. One group of pilots has concluded this based on intimate knowledge of the 777-200ER's automation systems; the other by flying scenarios in a 777 simulator

Their analyses draw in large part on information presented in four NTSB briefings after the crash from pilot interviews and the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

The NTSB revealed that the pilots were initially high and fast on the approach but rapidly decreased speed and altitude to intercept a visual glideslope to the runway. At 500 ft. altitude, the right-seat instructor pilot said he saw three red and one white precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights—a set of four lights located near the intended landing markers that give pilots a visual glideslope—and realized he was slightly low. His speed, at 134 kt., was close to the 137 kt. target speed.

By 200 ft., however, the same pilot said he saw four red PAPI lights (significantly below glideslope) and noticed speed was nearing stall. At that point, he realized the autothrottles had not been keeping up. By the time the pilots added power, the aircraft was too low and slow, and in its high drag state could not climb fast enough to avoid striking the sea wall with its main gear and tail.

The NTSB says the engines and flight controls were responding correctly to inputs and there were no anomalies noted in the autopilot, flight director or autothrottle systems. Switches in the cockpit showed that the left and right autothrottles were “armed,” and the flight director was “on” for the right-seat and “off” for the left-seat pilot, who was at the controls for the landing. Experts say it is not unusual for a pilot to turn the flight director off on a visual approach to reduce clutter or confusing data on the primary flight display.

Based on the NTSB's forensic data, automation decisions earlier in the approach appear to be reasonable: Descending through 4,000 ft., the right-seat pilot said the aircraft was “slightly high” and he used the aircraft's vertical-speed mode to descend at 1,500 ft. per min. with the autopilot controlling. The left and right autothrottles were “armed,” and he correctly assumed the automation system would have controlled the speed to 137 kt. Pilots use the master control panel (MCP) at the top center of the 777's panel to select autonomy modes and input heading, altitude, speed and vertical-speed commands for the autopilot and autothrottle systems.

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