Of all human fears, a fear of flying may be the most intuitive. While aviation has become increasingly safer since the 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 fair-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 cliche has it, people are less safe driving themselves to the airport than they are once they are airborne in the hands of the 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 Saturday in San Francisco. Instead, it was left a smoking wreck after a crash-landing that never should have happened.
A plane should not slam into the runway in ideal conditions, especially when the aircraft seemed to be performing as it was designed to do, although a question has been raised about whether the autothrottle was functioning properly. In any scenario, what was apparently 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 the rest of us are not so constrained.
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 too late. The pilot, Lee Gang-guk, had only 43 hours in the 777 although nearly 10,000 in other aircraft. But another pilot, one of four, had 3,220 hours in the 777. With 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 seriously hurt was relatively small. For many of the passengers, good luck intermingled with the bad. That's at least a little reassuring for those who fear flying.