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This aerial photo shows the wreckage of the Asiana Flight 214 airplane after it crashed at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday,  July 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The burned remains of Asiana Flight 214 lie at San Francisco International Airport.

Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published July 9, 2013

On July 6, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while attempting a landing at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Two people were killed in the Boeing 777 accident, and more than 180 of the 307 people on the flight were injured.

The weather was clear. The president and CEO of Asiana, Yoon Young-doo, told media that the plane did not have engine or mechanical problems. This has left officials to focus their attention on whether pilot error is the root cause of the disaster. (See "Q&A With a Pilot: Just How Does Autopilot Work?")

Since the airline involved, Asiana, is based in Korea, some observers have asked if the crash might have a cultural connection, as discussed in a chapter in the 2008 bestseller Outliers by author Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Gladwell pointed out the poor safety record of Korean Air—the Asian country's largest carrier—in the 1980s and 1990s, including several fatal crashes.

Gladwell did not return a request for comment, but in summarizing his ideas for Fortune magazine in November 2008, he said Korean Air's problem at the time was not old planes or poor crew training. "What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical," he said.

"You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S." he added. That's dangerous when it comes to modern airplanes, said Gladwell, because such sophisticated machines are designed to be piloted by a crew that works together as a team of equals, remaining unafraid to point out mistakes or disagree with a captain.

To Gladwell, this may have explained why Korean Air Flight 801 crashed into a hill while on approach to an airport in Guam in 1997, killing 223 people. In addition to a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, an offline warning system, and outdated charts, the co-pilot was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot, wrote Gladwell—a fatal mistake.

Similarly, Gladwell assigned blame for the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York, to human error caused by cultural differences. The plane ran out of fuel while circling JFK, leading to 73 fatalities. The pilots of the Colombian airline did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel, wrote Gladwell.

Gladwell argued that in Colombia, as in Korea, cultural norms tended to dictate that people avoid directly questioning authority—in this case, the authority of controllers who had asked the Avianca plane to keep holding.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declined to comment on whether cultural factors could have been involved in the crash of Asiana Flight 214 on July 6. A spokesperson for Asiana also declined to comment, suggesting reporters speak with the NTSB.

Korea's Improving Safety Record

Writing in Slate, Patrick Smith—a pilot himself—wrote, "Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of Korean air safety in 2013."

Smith acknowledged that Korean carriers had safety problems in the past. "But Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation's civil aviation system," he wrote.

According to Gladwell, that overhaul process included cultural reorientation inside the cockpit, to encourage crew to speak up about any perceived dangers and to voice concerns in plain language—not overly polite, mitigated speech that could be interpreted as vague. Staff was also tested for English proficiency, as the language has become the international standard in aviation.

Those efforts paid off, according to Smith, who noted that a 2008 industry assessment ranked Korean airlines as among the safest in the world.

"As they should be, Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation's number two carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety," wrote Smith.

He added that fatal plane crashes overall are increasingly rare. This month's accident was the first multiple-fatality incident in the U.S. involving a major airline since November 2001, Smith noted.

Flight 214: A Pilot in Training

Terry Williams, a spokesperson for the NTSB, told National Geographic that it is too early in the investigation into the Asiana Flight 214 crash to make any conclusions about the cause.

Still, the NTSB has released preliminary findings from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders to the media that indicate the plane was approaching SFO's runway well below the target landing speed of 137 knots (157 mph). Autopilot had been disengaged at 1,600 feet (488 meters).

According to the NTSB, the pilots tried to gun the engines seven seconds before impact. Four seconds before impact, a stall warning sounded, meaning the airplane wasn't generating enough lift. At 1.5 seconds, the pilots tried to scrap the landing and go around for another attempt, but they didn't make it.

The plane seems to have hit a seawall directly in front of the runway. It then skidded down the tarmac, depositing debris along the way.

Media reports have played up the fact that the pilot said to be at the craft's controls during impact, identified as Lee Gang-guk, was being trained on the Boeing 777, according to Asiana. Gang-guk had reportedly completed only 43 hours behind the stick of that craft, although he had logged more than 10,000 hours of flight time overall.

Anthony Philbin, a spokesperson for the International Civil Aviation Organization, told National Geographic that such a training arrangement is common on commercial flights. "In a line-training scenario it is quite normal for the learning pilot to do half of the landings required," he said.

"This method of training is used by every airline in the world."

Smith also disputed the argument that SFO's narrow, crowded runways were to blame. That's a condition pilots train for, he noted.

Philbin said he couldn't comment on any cultural forces that may have been at work in the Flight 214 cockpit, and he pointed to the pilot's long safety record overall. South Korean officials told the Associated Press that another pilot on the flight, Lee Jeong-min, had 12,390 hours of flight experience and 3,220 hours on a 777.

According to the NTSB, investigation into the crash and aftermath will continue. It's unclear whether the agency will consider possible cultural questions.

Gladwell has written that planes actually tend to be safer when a less experienced pilot is flying while supervised by a more experienced one. When the reverse is true, he writes, a junior officer is less likely to speak up about potential mistakes or problems.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

5 comments
janda99610 janda996100
janda99610 janda996100

the actual truth is unknown to me, but the fact that the pilot was actually older than the more experienced 777 pilots suggests that it may have been difficult for the more experienced pilots to speak up.  Gladwell's chapter probably applies. http://balipie.blogspot.com/

Samuel Suhr
Samuel Suhr

Why this unwarranted focus on a cultural explanation?  Do people ask these questions when an American or European plane crash-lands? 

When the Exxon Valdez mishap occurred, I didn't hear any voices wondering if Capt. Hazelwood's Americanness was somehow responsible.  Is anyone asking if French culture is involved in the train derailment that just happened?  If not, why not?  More people were killed in that one.

And when Lucie Blackman and Linday Hawker, both British, were murdered in separate incidents in Japan, no one seemed to wonder if there were some compatibility issues between British and Japanese cultures that led to those crimes.

It's absurd to suppose that people will quietly sit and ignore obvious danger when their lives and those of hundreds of others are directly threatened, just because they were taught to be respectful.  So absurd, in fact, that an unconscious element of racism -- or maybe not so unconscious -- may reasonably be suspected.

Dennis Ashendorf
Dennis Ashendorf

Yes, the actual truth is unknown to me, but the fact that the pilot was actually older than the more experienced 777 pilots suggests that it may have been difficult for the more experienced pilots to speak up.  Gladwell's chapter probably applies.

Do you really think that Korean culture has changed that quickly and completely? I've gone to reorientation meetings. Funny thing: not everybody takes them seriously.

Carol Music
Carol Music

My only real observation of the information above is that I hope that airline never tries to land in Sitka, Ketchikan or Juneau AK! All three airports have ocean at both ends of the runway and when they land they STOP very quickly - very disconcerting to new passengers arriving in SE AK! On the good side is that a 777 is way to large to ever try landing there and I would guess all the pilots (mostly with AK Airlines) are extremely well trained in how to land in these difficult airports. I don't believe there has ever been a crash in Sitka, which, in my experience, is the shortest runway of the three cities. It is literally built on 2 or 3 very small islands that were filled in to make the runway and you literally come in over water and take off over water!! To get to the town of Sitka, you must then cross a bridge, so the airport isn't even on the same island. The same is true of Ketchikan, though I believe the runway is longer. There you must take a walk-on ferry to get to the town.


I also wish the send my condolences to the two families who lost their daughters in that flight. Yes, everyone else survived and that is very wonderful, but to those two families, it means nothing. I'm so sorry they must bury their children! I can't imagine the pain a parent goes through when that happens. I just know the grief is overwhelming and terrible. May they begin to find peace and they struggle through the next several months.

Diane Merriam
Diane Merriam

@Samuel Suhr 

Race and culture are often two very different things. Hierarchical norms are hard to get rid of when you're taught from the very beginning of childhood that you NEVER or ALWAYS treat your superiors in certain ways. Most western cultures aren't that fixed. 

But, for example, if It turns out that the reason the train derailed in France was that it had been worked on by someone whom everyone knew wasn't up to snuff, but couldn't be fired due to the cultural norm that has developed in France that, once you have a job you have it for life.

These things may be absurd to you, but they're a reality that millions, if not billions of people grow up "knowing."

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