Of all human fears, a fear of flying may be the most intuitive. Although aviation has become increasingly safer since the Dayton-based Wright Brothers put their heavier-than-air machine aloft near Kitty Hawk 110 years ago, the modern airliner is a huge chunk of metal. Anyone can be forgiven the faint-hearted thought: How can that huge thing fly?
But big commercial airliners do fly, routinely, every day, by the tens of thousands and generally without incident. As the cliché has it, people are less safe driving to the airport than they are once they are airborne in the hands of professionals. A passenger would have to be very unlucky for something to go wrong.
The passengers of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 had that misfortune. Their Boeing 777, which began its flight in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, should have landed safely last week in San Francisco. Instead, it was left a smoking wreck after a crash landing that never should have happened.
An aircraft should not slam into a runway in ideal conditions, especially when it seemed to be performing as it was designed to do, although a question has been raised about whether its autothrottle was working properly. What appeared lacking was the crew in the cockpit paying enough attention.
Pilot error, of course, is not the official finding of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is duty-bound to conduct a painstaking inquiry before settling on a cause. But it is clear from information released by the NTSB that the plane was too slow and too low as it approached the landing — and nobody noticed until it was too late.
The pilot had only 43 hours in the 777, although he had spent nearly 10,000 hours in other aircraft. But another pilot, one of four, had 3,220 hours in the 777. With such veteran experience available, there was no excuse for novice mistakes.
Yet even in this unusual situation, the tragedy was much less than it might have been. Of the 307 passengers and crew, only two lives were lost. While 180 people went to hospitals, the number who were seriously hurt was relatively small.
For many of the passengers on Flight 214, good luck intermingled with the bad. That’s at least a little reassuring for those who fear flying.