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July 10th, 2013
06:32 PM ET

Asiana crash probe includes what may not have been said in cockpit

U.S. safety investigators pouring over the wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 are also carefully examining the cockpit voice recorder for clues to the crash in San Francisco.

Normally, technicians listen for crew comments in the final stages of flight. But in this case, a preliminary reading of that tape indicated the Korean pilots busy trying to line up airport runway as their jetliner sank were pretty quiet  – at that could be just as telling.

Investigators are well aware of potential cultural differences between U.S. and South Korean aviation crews.

While events leading to the crash are unclear, attention in the early going of the investigation has centered on actions of the crew.

Author and researcher Malcolm Gladwell made some interesting points in his bestseller "Outliers."

He dedicated an entire chapter to the comparison between South Korean airline culture and a world of others.

Gladwell found by and large Koreans had trouble communicating in the cockpit.

"The overwhelming majority of crashes are the result of a breakdown in communication between the co-pilot and a pilot. Something comes up, a situation emerges that requires those two pilots to be in open and honest communication, and they fail to do that. One person withholds information. One person doesn't share," Gladwell told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in 2009.

The question therefore becomes, Gladwell argues, what is the role of culture in plane crashes?

Is it easier in some cultures for a subordinate to speak candidly even harshly to a superior than in other cultures?

"And the answer is, 'Absolutely,'" said Gladwell.

In one study in the field of cultural psychology, South Korea ranked second in the world in respect for authority, or what is called power distance.

"In 99% of cases a beautiful and wonderful thing. In the cockpit it's a problem, right? If you overlay the cultures in the world by power distance and by plane crashes it's the same list," said Gladwell.

In the 1990s, the country's largest airline, Korean Air, found itself on the crash list far too often. The airline suffered five accidents in the second half of the decade alone. Most memorably, a horrific crash in Guam in 1997.

In that crash, recordings from the cockpit show the crew gingerly bringing up potential problems as they tried to land during a storm.

Instead of saying: “You should use the weather radar instead of trying to land the plane by sight, the engineer deferentially notes, ‘Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.’

He was essentially ignored.

Some 228 aboard were killed.

The airline's dismal record prompted South Korea to undergo a costly overhaul of its airline system.

"They fixed it by bringing them in with different cultural attitude. Made them speak in English because it is not hierarchical language," said Gladwell.

In this week's disaster, one Asiana flight attendant obeyed orders others may have questioned.

"I asked, 'Are you okay, captain?' And he said, 'Yes, I'm okay.' I asked, 'Should I perform the evacuation?' And he asked me to wait," veteran flight attendant Lee Yoon Hye recalled.

Of course, investigators may never know if culture played a role in the crash with pilot training, experience, possible mechanical problems, navigation questions and other issues factoring into the mix of possible causes or contributing factors.

But flight recorders show that no one in the cockpit voiced concern about the landing until 1.5 seconds before the co-pilot made impact.

South Korean officials are also investigating the crash.

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