By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Relatives of the victims listen to a translation during
yesterday's hearing on the crash of Korean Air Flight 801
on Guam last August.
The glide slope at the airportBy Lori Tighe
and the plane's altitude warning system
were out of service
Air traffic controllers who tried to help Korean Air Flight 801 land on Guam last August testified yesterday that two critical systems were out of service: the glide slope and the minimum safe altitude warning system, nicknamed "the last chance."
The flight crashed into a hillside near the Guam airport on Aug. 6, 1997, killing 228 people. The National Transportation Safety Board is holding hearings here this week to try to determine the cause of the crash.
The glide slope, which acts as a tractor beam to guide the plane down, was being typhoon-proofed to safeguard it from storms.
The minimum safe altitude warning system (MSAW), a high-tech computer system that warns air traffic controllers about planes flying too low, had been reconfigured, and in effect decommissioned, because of too many false alarms.
Kurt Mayo, Guam radar controller, said he thought the crew knew the glide slope was down. He also said he wasn't aware the MSAW had been reconfigured and was basically useless.
"Any doubt in your mind the crew would have known the glide slope was out?" asked Richard Wentworth, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"No," Mayo answered.
If MSAW had worked, Guam air traffic controller Marty Theobald told the investigating board, "I would have alerted the plane to check their altitude immediately."
After the Guam accident, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration testified they checked MSAWs in all 50 U.S. states to ensure they worked.
"Technology has worked, but one of its revenge effects is relying on it to an inappropriate degree," said Jim Burnett, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now a transportation safety consultant.
He said he found the hearing's first day of testimony informative.
"There were additional problems with air traffic control. Everyone was supposed to know about the two critical systems down, but not everyone knew," Burnett said. "False signals may have indicated to the captain it was working. We'll hear more about that later."
The pilot of Flight 801, Capt. Yong-Chul Park, received notice before the flight of the downed glide slope, which wouldn't guide him through the mountainous terrain near Guam's airport.
According to the cockpit recorder, Park even briefed his crew about the downed glide slope. But in the minutes leading up to the crash, the captain and crew went back and forth about whether the glide slope was working.
The Safety Board said it became concerned about the possibility of "spurious" radio signals, possibly leading the captain to believe the glide slope worked after all. Witnesses will testify about electronic interference that may have contributed to the crew's confusion.
The crew's final caution, a ground proximity warning system on the plane, apparently warned the crew they flew too low, Burnett said. "But in this case they weren't quick to respond to it."
Another suggestion involved the possibility that Asian cultural respect for authority might have caused the crew not to challenge the pilot about the danger.
"It's the kind of thing you have to look at," Burnett said. Cultural differences among international flight crews have played a part in past plane crashes, he said.
"A classic story of one was a plane crash in Spain, where the air traffic controller was yelling, 'Pull up! Pull up!' and the captain said, 'Shut up, gringo,' before he flew into a mountain," Burnett said.
But Muchol Shin, spokesman for Korean Air, smiled and shook his head at the suggestion the Korean crew failed to protest to the Korean captain before the crash.
"A cultural issue was not a case here. They were too busy with the landing procedure and thought everything was normal," Shin said.
Koreans have two language protocols based on age, he said. Younger Koreans use "sir" with older Koreans, for example. The older engineer on Flight 801 didn't use "sir" a few times when addressing the younger captain on the cockpit recording, Shin said.
"I would rather put it as an ill-fated flight where everything went wrong," he said.
Air crash survivorBy Ben DiPietro
Flames singed Kim Duck-hwan's skin as he climbed through a hole punched through the roof of Korean Air Flight 801 moments after it slammed into a Guam hillside.
The cool rain Kim felt when he crawled out of the plane did little to dull his pain. More than seven months after the Aug. 6 accident, Kim still wears bandages on his hands and has third-degree burns on more than 45 percent of his body.
He also still does not have any answers as to what caused the crash or whether any actions could have saved the 228 passengers and crew who died.
The plane had taken off from Seoul, South Korea, and was filled with Korean vacationers, including honeymooners.
As National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the cause of the crash continue today, Kim wants answers and the parties involved to take responsibility.
"All of the parties being given a platform to speak are partly responsible," Kim said yesterday in Korean with an interpreter and two American attorneys by his side. "Everyone in this hearing who is able to speak out should bear some responsibility for this accident.
"With an accident of this magnitude, there is no way only one party is responsible."
No advance warning was given to passengers that a crash was imminent, and Kim believed the plane was landing when the tail actually was hitting the mountain.
"However, when the plane bounced back down and the wing caught fire and exploded, that's when I realized it was an accident," said Kim, whose fiancee was engulfed in flames and died.
"I remember everything," he said. "I was not thinking. I was just going by instinct."
Controller Kurt Mayo tried to explain yesterday why there was a 23-minute gap between the crash and the first reported call for help from the airport tower. He said he wanted verification from another incoming aircraft that Flight 801 had crashed before requesting an assistant to call for help.
For Kim, preventing future crashes won't restore his life to what it was before the crash.
"I am very lucky and grateful to be alive," Kim said. "But no amount of money or apology . . . can compensate for the loss."