Regulators have shared a plethora of data about the jet, including the slow speed at which it was flying, the backgrounds of the pilots on board, and the 360 degree spin that the plane took after its landing gear hit the seawall at the edge of the airport.
The candor isn’t sitting well with the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American carriers. Even though the Asiana Airlines pilots are not ALPA members, the union issued a blistering attack Tuesday on the NTSB for revealing so much.
“ALPA is stunned by the amount of detailed operational data from on-board recorders released by the (NTSB) this soon into the investigation. The amount of data released publicly during the field portion of the accident investigationis unprecedented,” the pilots union said.
“It is imperative that safety investigators refrain from prematurely releasing the information from on-board recording devices. We have seen in the past that publicizing this data before all of it can be collected and analyzed leads to erroneous conclusions that can actually interfere with the investigative process.”
But modern technology, plus the wide variety of stakeholders following the outcome of the investigation, is prompting federal officials to provide far more information than in the past. For instance:
Long before the first investigators arrived at the airport, the tape of the conversation between air traffic controllers and the Asiana pilots had been posted on Twitter. Aviation buffs could hear the byplay between the Korean jet, and surrounding jets who were waiting to take off, and those that were diverted to other airports. In the past, the tape might have taken days or weeks to surface, if at all.
Flight tracker software showed the plane’s descent into San Francisco, as well as other aircraft in the area. It was easy to see how planes initially were put in holding patterns, and ultimately sent to land elsewhere.
Passengers tweeted updates and photos of the plane as soon as they had slid down the emergency slides. Meanwhile, news choppers over the airport broadcast some amazing footage of the damage to the plane, the kind that is usually available only to investigators, and only hours or days after a crash has taken place. The chopper footage also showed many passengers leaving the jet with their bags, a definite no-no for escaping a crashed plane.
For its part, the NTSB is tweeting and posting a remarkable set of pictures on its Web site, giving almost unprecedented views inside the jet. There also have been photos of the damage caused by the fire that broke out in an engine when the plane hit the runway, and pictures showing the landing gear and pieces of the tail strewn about. The agency also is providing videos of its daily briefings.
The NTSB has always been available to answer journalists’ questions after aviation accidents, but it often took a degree in aeronautics or long years on the airline beat to understand what was being said. This crash, however, is being explained in real time and in much simpler terms than in the past. Anything confusing is instantly explained by pilots and other aviation pros on social media, while significant developments are seized upon in seconds.
Federal regulators aren’t just aiming their focus on the media. Aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing, which built the Asiana jet, engine manufacturers, such as Pratt & Whitney, and dozens of suppliers are directly affected by this crash. Every airline that flies a Boeing product is eager for answers. So are Boeing’s competitors, like Airbus, and beyond them, the community of aviation professionals and airport administrators.
Everyone wants to know whether this could happen again, or happen where they work and operate. That’s a key reason why the data being released by the NTSB is so valuable, despite the pilots union’s objections.
As I wrote in a series of tips about covering crashes, the federal agency does not speculate. There are plenty of less-informed reporters and experts seeking attention who’ve done that. But, for those who know aviation, this crash has become the gold standard for providing a gold mine of information.