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Boeing 777 has strong safety record, experts say

The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday is the first accident involving a Boeing 777 involving passenger fatalities, CBS News aviation and safety analyst Capt. Chesley Sullenberger saidSaturday.

The crash 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.

According to the Wall Street Journal, prior to Saturday's deadly crash, the 777 had been one of the few long-range jets from Boeing and Airbus to have never recorded a fatality.

In 2001, a member of the ground crew at Denver International Airport was fatally injured in an incident involving a 777, but the Asiana Airlines crash is the first involving passenger fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

Commonly referred to as the "Triple Seven," the 777 is a long-range jet designed primarily for extended flights over water. The plane that crashed in San Francisco was coming from Seoul, South Korea.

The 777 had its first flight in 1994 and was introduced into service in 1995. As of last month, Boeing had delivered more than 1,100 of the planes to airlines around the world.

According to the Boeing website, since the airplane was first introduced into service 18 years ago, the 777 has flown almost 5 million flights and accumulated more than 18 million flight hours.

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The previous accident involving a 777 occurred on Jan. 17, 2008, at London's Heathrow Airport. In the process of landing, British Airways Flight 38 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 in San Francisco.

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. "For whatever reason, they appeared to go low on approach and then the airplane pitched up suddenly to an extreme attitude, which could have been the pilots trying to keep it out of the ground."

Waldock cautioned: "Of course, there is no indication directly that's what happened here. That's what the investigation is going to have to find out."

While the two accidents appear to have occurred about the point in landing, "you can't rule out anything thing at this point," Haueter said.

"I think it's someone who got slow and low on the approach, quite frankly, but we won't know anything until we see the flight data recorder," he said.

Haueter said was doubtful the Asiana accident will be linked to the same icing problem as that caused the British Airways accident since changes were made after that crash to prevent further incidents.

"Most accidents happen during takeoff and landing anyway," he said.

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.

The last fatal U.S. crash was a Continental Express flight operated by Colgan Air, which crashed into a house near Buffalo, N.Y. on Feb. 12, 2009. The crash killed all 49 people on board and one man in a house.

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