On the morning of August 5, 1997, the captain of Korean Air flight 801 woke at six. His family would later tell investigators that he went to the gym for an hour, then came home and studied the flight plan for that evening's journey to Guam. He napped and ate lunch. At three in the afternoon, he left for Seoul, departing early enough, his wife said, to continue his preparations at Kimpo International Airport. He had been a pilot with Korean Air for almost four years after coming over from the Korean Air Force. He had eighty-nine hundred hours of flight time, including thirty-two hundred hours of experience in jumbo jets. A few months earlier, he had been given a flight safety award by his airline for successfully handling a jumbo-jet engine failure at low altitude. He was forty-two years old and in excellent health, with the exception of a bout of bronchitis that had been diagnosed ten days before.
At seven p.m., the captain, his first officer, and the flight engineer met and collected the trip's paperwork. They would be flying a Boeing 747.the model known in the aviation world as the "classic." The aircraft was in perfect working order. It had once been the Korean presidential plane. Flight 801 departed the gate at ten-thirty in the evening and was airborne twenty minutes later. Takeoff was without incident. Just before one-thirty in the morning, the plane broke out of the clouds, and the flight crew glimpsed lights off in the distance.
"Is it Guam?" the flight engineer asked. Then, after a pause, he said, "It's Guam, Guam."
The captain chuckled. "Good!"
The first officer reported to Air Traffic Control (ATC) that the airplane was "clear of Charlie Bravo [cumulonimbus clouds]" and requested "radar vectors for runway six left."
The plane began its descent toward Guam airport. They would make a visual approach, the captain said. He had flown into Guam airport from Kimpo eight times previously, most recently a month ago, and he knew the airport and the surrounding terrain well. The landing gear went down. The flaps were extended ten degrees. At 01:41 and 48 seconds, the captain said, "Wiper on," and the flight engineer turned them on. It was raining. The first officer then said, "Not in sight?" He was looking for the runway. He couldn't see it. One second later, the Ground Proximity Warning System called out in its electronic voice: "Five hundred [feet]." The plane was five hundred feet off the ground. But how could that be if they couldn't see the runway? Two seconds passed. The flight engineer said, "Eh?" in an astonished tone of voice.
At 01:42 and 19 seconds, the first officer said, "Let's make a missed approach," meaning, Let's pull up and make a large circle and try the landing again.
One second later, the flight engineer said, "Not in sight." The first officer added, "Not in sight, missed approach." At 01:42 and 22 seconds, the flight engineer said again, "Go around."
At 01:42 and 23 seconds, the captain repeated, "Go around," but he was slow to pull the plane out of its descent.
At 01:42 and 26 seconds, the plane hit the side of Nimitz Hill, a densely vegetated mountain three miles southwest of the airport--$60 million and 212,000 kilograms of steel slamming into rocky ground at one hundred miles per hour. The plane skidded for two thousand feet, severing an oil pipeline and snapping pine trees, before falling into a ravine and bursting into flames. By the time rescue workers reached the crash site, 228 of the 254 people on board were dead.
Twenty years before the crash of KAL 801, a Korean Air Boeing 707 wandered into Russian airspace and was shot down by a Soviet military jet over the Barents Sea. It was an accident, meaning the kind of rare and catastrophic event that, but for the grace of God, could happen to any airline. It was investigated and analyzed. Lessons were learned. Reports were filed.
Then, two years later, a Korean Air Boeing 747 crashed in Seoul. Two accidents in two years is not a good sign. Three years after that, the airline lost another 747 near Sakhalin Island, in Russia, followed by a Boeing 707 that went down over the Andaman Sea in 1987, two more crashes in 1989 in Tripoli and Seoul, and then another in 1994 in Cheju, South Korea.
To put that record in perspective, the "loss" rate for an airline like the American carrier United Airlines in the period 1988 to 1998 was .27 per million departures, which means that they lost a plane in an accident about once in every four million flights. The loss rate for Korean Air, in the same period, was 4.79 per million departures--more than seventeen times higher.
About the book:
One of the best self help books, Outliers is the third non-fiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell. From Bill Gates' Microsoft to the turn-around story of Korean Air, Gladwell examines best success stories the world has seen. The book offers a fresh perspective on factors playing role in one's success or failure. The amount of research behind the book makes it a success.
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