If you've flown into San Francisco International Airport even once, you probably can close your eyes and see the approach to runway 28 Left or 28 Right.

Your plane descends over the hills of the East Bay, deep green in winter, tan and dry in summer. It lines up on a path to the northwest, following the tilt of the San Francisco Bay. Out the port side windows, the cities of the Peninsula slip by – Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo, Burlingame. Under the starboard wing go Fremont, Union City, Hayward.

If you're looking, you see sailboats on the bay, cars on the San Mateo Bridge. Windy days froth the water with whitecaps.

As that water comes closer and closer and closer, you wait for the flash of the rocky seawall and the comforting sight of concrete runway coming up to meet you.

Only the most confident of fliers hasn't imagined a crash on that approach, and I suspect that after Saturday's disaster on 28 Left that there will be fewer fliers with such confidence on future landings.

Still, you have to feel a sense of wonder that such a catastrophic mistake (or maybe malfunction) could result in such a relatively small number of deaths and injuries. It could have been so much worse.

That's no comfort to the families and friends of two 16-year-old girls who died in the crash of Asiana Flight 214. Nor does it heal the injuries sustained by more than 160 passengers, some of whom remain in critical condition.

But more than 120 people walked away from that crash – some even hauling their carry-on bags off the plane with them. Many then turned on their phones and turned around to take pictures as the plane burst into flames.


On Sunday, a new video of the crash surfaced. It shows the big airliner coming in low and slow, clipping that seawall with its tail and then pancaking onto the runway. It slides, then seems to bounce into the air, rotating partially before slamming back into the ground.

Imagine the chaos inside. Luggage and garbage and dust flying through the cabin. Oxygen masks dancing on their tubes from above. Screams and cries and prayers.

Thankfully, the flight crew and apparently a few passengers were able to keep their heads about them, get doors open and start people moving down the emergency chutes. Some people just walked out the hole in the back of the plane where the tail section had been broken off.

Aviation experts today are saying that flying is safer than it used to be, and even that crashing is safer. Planes are stronger, seats are better anchored, materials are more fire-resistant, doors are easier to open. From 1962 to 1981, 54 percent of people involved in plane crashes were killed. From 1982 to 2009, that figure was down to 39 percent, according to the Associated Press.

All but two of the 307 on Flight 214 survived this crash, so that survivability rate improved even more this weekend.

But landing in San Francisco will never be the same again.

<I>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</I>