Pilot in fatal S.F. crash had little experience with 777s 

click to enlarge Asiana Flight 214
  • AP Photo/Noah Berger
  • Fire crews respond to the scene where Asiana Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, July 6, 2013, in San Francisco.

The pilot of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday was still “in training” on the Boeing 777 model airplane when he attempted to land, the South Korean carrier said today.

Lee Gang-guk, the second-most junior pilot of four on board the aircraft, had 43 hours’ experience flying the long-range jet, Asiana said. The plane’s crew tried to abort the descent less than two seconds before it hit a seawall, bounced along the tarmac and burst into flames, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.

It was Lee’s first attempt to land a 777 at SFO, though he had flown there 29 times previously on different types of aircraft, said South Korean transport ministry official Choi Seung-youn. Earlier, the ministry said he had accumulated a total of 9,793 flying hours, including his 43 at the controls of the 777.

Two Chinese teenagers were killed and more than 180 injured in the crash, the first fatal accident involving the Boeing 777 since it entered service in 1995.

Asiana said Lee was in the pilot seat during the landing, although it was not clear whether the senior pilot who was supervising, Lee Jeong-min, who had clocked 3,220 hours on a Boeing 777, had tried to take over to abort the landing.

Information collected from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder indicated that there were no signs of trouble until seven seconds before impact, when the crew tried to accelerate, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.

A stall warning in which the cockpit controls begin to shake activated four seconds before impact, and the crew tried to abort the landing and initiate what is known as a “go around” maneuver 1.5 seconds before crashing, Hersman said.

“Air speed was significantly below the target air speed” of 137 knots, she said.

The throttle was set at idle as the plane approached the airport and the engines appeared to respond normally when the crew tried to gain speed in the seconds before the crash, Hersman added.

The charred hulk of the aircraft remained on the airport tarmac as flight operations gradually returned to normal Sunday. Three of the four runways were operating by the afternoon.

Hersman said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash. The data recorders corroborated witness accounts and an amateur video, shown by CNN, that indicated the plane came in too low, lifted its nose in an attempt to gain altitude and then bounced violently along the tarmac after the rear of the aircraft clipped a seawall at the approach to the runway.

Asked whether the information reviewed by the NTSB showed pilot error in the crash, Hersman did not answer directly.

“What I will tell you is that the NTSB conducts very thorough investigations. We will not reach a determination of probable cause in the first few days that we’re on an accident scene,” she said.

Asiana said mechanical failure did not appear to be a factor.

Fire personnel might have run over victim

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether one of the two people killed in Saturday’s Asiana Airlines crash might have been unknowingly hit by a fire vehicle at the scene.

The NTSB is conducting a “very thorough investigation” into whether one of those vehicles might have struck a victim at the crash site, Fire Department Lt. Mindy Talmadge said. The department is not allowed to discuss or speculate on specifics, she said.

Flight 214 had been flying from Seoul, South Korea, to San Francisco International Airport on Saturday when it crashed during landing. Two teenage girls were killed and more than 180 other passengers injured.

More than 120 people walked away from the crash uninjured.

Autopsies to determine the cause of death of the teens will be conducted by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office, officials said.

More than 30 people remained hospitalized late Sunday. Eight were listed in critical condition, including two with paralysis from spinal injuries, according to hospital officials.

NTSB chief Deborah Hersman asked members of the public who witnessed the crash to submit accounts, photos and video to www.ntsb.gov.

Increasingly safe

The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 highlights how improvements in aviation safety have made it more likely that passengers will survive a crash. The major improvements made since the 1980s include:

Stronger seats: Today’s airplane seats — and the bolts holding them to the floor — are designed to withstand forces up to 16 times that of gravity. That prevents rows of seats from pancaking together during a crash, crushing passengers.

Fire-retardant materials: Carpeting and seat cushions are now made of materials that burn slower, spread flames slower and don’t give off noxious and dangerous gases.

Improved exits: Doors on planes are much simpler to open and easily swing out of the way, allowing passengers to quickly exit in an emergency. And planes now come with rows of lights on the floor that change from white to red when an exit is reached.

Better training: Flight attendants at many airlines now train in full-size models of planes that fill with smoke during crash simulations.

Stronger planes: Aircraft engineers have looked at structural weaknesses from past crashes and reinforced those sections of the plane.

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