WASHINGTON - The crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 in San Francisco on Saturday is only the second major accident for the twin-engine, wide-bodied jet in the 18 years the model has been in service, aviation safety experts said.
"The 777 has a fantastic record," said Tom Haueter, who retired last year from the National Transportation Safety Board, where he was the head of aviation accident investigations.
The two accidents share a striking similarity - both occurred just about the time the planes were touching down to land.
The previous accident occurred on Jan. 17, 2008, at London's Heathrow Airport. In the process of landing, British Airways Flight 28 from China landed hard about 1,000 feet short of the runway and then slid onto the runway. The impact broke the 777-200's landing gear. There were 47 injuries, but no fatalities.
An investigation revealed ice pellets had formed in the fuel while the plane was flying at high altitudes, clogging the fuel-oil heat exchanger. As a result, fuel was blocked from reaching both of the plane's engines. The Rolls-Royce Trent 800 series engines that were used on the plane were fixed afterward to prevent similar problems.
Bill Waldock, an expert on aviation accident investigation, said he was reminded of the 2008 Heathrow accident as he watched video of Saturday's crash.
The Asiana 777 "was right at the landing phase and for whatever reason the landing went wrong," said Waldock, director of the Embry-Riddle University accident investigation laboratory in Prescott, Ariz.
Safety improvements to planes in recent years - better fire-proofing of passenger cabins and reinforcements to fuel systems - may have prevented the San Francisco accident from becoming much worse, Waldock said.