Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509: Bad attitude

On 22 December 1999, Korean Air Cargo flight 8509 departs Stansted Airport, London bound for Milan, but less than a minute after it takes off, the plane crashes and kills all four crew members on board. Air accident investigators have to find out if the plane or crew error is to blame for the disaster.

The main reason for the fatal accident of KAL flight 8509 was caused by Korean Air’s autocratic cockpit culture and Korean national culture. According to Khoury (2009) one year before the accident of KAL flight 8509, The Internal Safety Audit report 20th September 1998 written by an external New Zealand check and training pilot group found the problems of Korean Air. Ignorance of 1998 report brought a fatal disaster of KAL flight 8509 (On 22 December, 1999). The report mentions that Korean Air has an endemic level of complacency, arrogance and incompetence pervading all section of Korean Air flight operations. “There is a volatile cocktail of complacency, arrogance, apathy and a lack of self-discipline. These attitudes must be removed from the flight deck at all costs” (Khoury, 2009, October 1, p. 26). Furthermore, Khoury (2009) states that between 1970 and 1999 Korean Air had total 16 aircraft incidents and accidents, with almost 700 casualties. More importantly Korean Air’s main problem was its organizational culture. Most of employees at Korean Air are Korean people. Therefore, their organizational culture is formed by their typical Korean national culture.

There were total four people on flight 8509, the flight crew consisted of 57-year-old Captain (ex military colonel single fighter jet, Park Duk-kyu, 33-year-old First Officer Yoon Ki-sik, 38-year-old Flight Engineer Park Hoon-kyu, and 45-year-old maintenance mechanic Kim Il-suk (Wikipedia, 2012). Helmreich (1998, p. 2) states that too strong national culture (autocratic leadership) causes higher probability of accident. Captain Park learnt his flight skills and leadership skills in South Korea Air Force, he was a colonel flying single-seat jet fighter. In 1990’s and before 1990’s most of the pilots working at Korean Air were ex-military pilots. Thus, Korean Air had a strong military hierarchy culture within its organization. It is not just Airline companies but most of Korean organization has a strong military hierarchy culture.

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According to Rowley, et al. (2002, p. 79) Korea is a male-dominated society. All man in Korea has to do military service for at least two years. Their exposure to military life influences over their whole careers. Therefore, it is common for Korean male workers to follow hierarchy system. “The experience of life in military camps contributes heavily to ideas on how organizations should be designed and operated. It influences behaviour even in later life, predisposing men to emphasize hierarchical command, a result- oriented ‘can-do spirit’, and aggressive competition” (Rowley, et al, 2002, p. 73). This Korean’s military life based national culture badly affected on Korean Air’s cockpit culture. When Korean Air trains cadet pilots, they always taught them their hierarchy culture. Not to say opposite idea to their Captain what ever happen. They thought it is dishonor for them and for their Captain. Moreover, low ranked Korean pilots were afraid that if they stand against their Captain they might ruin their entire pilot career in Korean Air. Therefore, this autocratic organizational culture especially cockpit culture made the First Officer to keeping quiet without saying any comments to the Captain. If the First Officer made a right decision, he would have saved himself and other crews’ lives.

2. Khoury, M. (2009, October 1). Korean Airlines Safety Audit Findings. Retrieved from [http://www.flight.org/blog/2009/10/01/korean-airlines-internal-audit-report-an-airline-waiting-to-happen/] on 9 September 2012.
3. Helmreich, R. L. (1998). “Error management as organisational strategy”, In Proceedings of the IATA Human Factors Seminar (pp. 1-7). Bangkok, Thailand, April 20-22, 1998.

4. Rowley, et al. : Rowley, C., Sohn, T.-W., & Bae, J. (2002). Managing Korean business : organization, culture, human resources and change / editors, Chris Rowley, Tae-Won Sohn, Johngseok Bae: London ; Portland, OR : F. Cass, 2002.

5. Wikipedia. (2012). Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509. Retrieved from [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Air_Cargo_Flight_8509] on 11 September 2012.

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