Pilots’ role in San Francisco plane crash questioned


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - Page 7

The role of the pilots in Saturday’s crash of an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco came under increasing scrutiny on Monday as US investigators began to interview them and released new details about the jet’s dangerously slow air speed before it slammed into the ground.

The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 was flying 63kph below its target speed of 255kph in the moments before it crashed at San Francisco’s international airport, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairwoman Deborah Hersman said at a news conference in San Francisco.

Planes can stall at slow speeds, and Hersman said on Sunday a stall warning had sounded four seconds before the crash.

All four pilots from the flight were being interviewed on Monday by investigators from the NTSB and other agencies, Hersman said.

Saturday’s crash killed two teenage Chinese passengers and injured more than 180 other people.

The pilot at the controls, Lee Kang-kuk, was still training on Boeing 777 jets, the South Korean airline said, and his supervisor was making his first flight as a trainer. Lee had 43 hours of experience flying the long-range jet, Asiana said.

Lee Kang-kuk was making his first attempt to land a 777 at San Francisco’s airport, although he had flown there 29 times previously on other types of aircraft, said South Korean Transport Ministry official Choi Seung-youn.

It was not clear whether the senior pilot, Lee Jung-min, tried to take over to abort the landing.

“All responsibilities lie with the instructor captain,” Yoon Young-doo, the president and chief executive of the airline, said at a news conference on Monday at the company’s headquarters.

Hersman said her team was investigating all aspects of the crash and the rescue efforts.

She said the NTSB wants to get the facts straight about who was the “flying pilot” in this leg of the flight and “who was the pilot in command in the cockpit.”

“I think it really is too early to conclude pilot error because there’s so much that we don’t know,” she added.

San Francisco police and fire officials, at an airport news conference, described a dramatic scene in the moments after the crash, with firefighters putting out an initial blaze and clambering up escape slides to help evacuate passengers.

San Francisco police officer Jim Cunningham, who colleagues said raced onto the plane without any protective gear, described freeing passengers as fire began to engulf the aircraft.

“People had injuries and some were just scared to move,” Cunningham said.

Many passengers were able to walk off, but emergency workers and passengers described a grim situation in other parts of the plane, with passengers trapped among dislodged seats and an escape chute that had deployed inside the plane.

Eugene Rah, a concert producer who lives in the San Francisco suburb of Milbrea, described heroic efforts by a flight attendant he identified as Kim Ji-yeon.

“She was in tears, but she was telling everybody what to do,” Rah said in an interview. “She was piggybacking other passengers.”