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Asiana Crash Trip Was Pilot's First As Instructor, NTSB Says

An image provided by the NTSB shows the nose section of Asiana Airline Flight 214, a Boeing 777, at the San Francisco airport where it crash-landed Saturday.
An image provided by the NTSB shows the nose section of Asiana Airline Flight 214, a Boeing 777, at the San Francisco airport where it crash-landed Saturday.

Three pilots, all of them with extensive flying experience, were in the cockpit of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 when it crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport Saturday, says National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman.

Despite the pilots' thousands of hours of experience — including, in at least two cases, military as well as civilian aircraft, Lee Gang-guk, the pilot who was in charge of landing the plane, had never before operated the 777. And he had never flown with the instructor pilot on the 777, Lee Jeong-min, who Hersman says was on his first trip as an instructor.

Hersman announced that information at a briefing Tuesday afternoon, after federal investigators had spoken with the three pilots. Details from interviews with the pilots, relayed by Hersman today, show that they realized the aircraft was in trouble, and tried to correct it as well as attempting to abort the landing.

The head of the NTSB also said it's too early to conclude anything about the cause of the accident, saying, "We will not determine probable cause while we are here on-scene."

Two Chinese teenagers died in the crash of the Boeing 777 Saturday; dozens of others were wounded, some of them critically.

One of the most striking details Hersman presented today was the news that two flight attendants had been ejected from the plane, when its tail broke off short of the runway. They had been at the rear of the cabin when the plane struck ground. The pair were found on the tarmac.

The flight crew has been "very cooperative" in dealing with investigators, Hersman told NPR's Renee Montagne this morning. And she reiterated that Tuesday afternoon, while adding that the interviews have taken longer than expected, partly due to the need for translation.

Below are highlights of what Hersman said Tuesday; we'll update this post as new details emerge.

The "pilot in the left seat said he has 9,700 hours total flight time, 5,000 hours as pilot in command," Hersman says. "This was his initial operating experience in the 777."

"He had completed 10 legs and about 35 hours flying the 777, so he was about halfway through" Asiana's requirements on the aircraft.

Asiana first hired the pilot in 1994; he received his initial training in Florida. He is rated in several other airliners. Immediately prior to his work on the 777, he was flying as a captain on the A320.

This was the other captain's "first trip as an instructor pilot." His total flight time is 13,000 hours, with 3,000 hours in the 777. He is a veteran of South Korea's air force.

The relief first officer had "4600 hours flight time," Hersman says, and was also a veteran of the air force. He had flown to San Francisco several times.

The fourth pilot on-board, part of the relief crew, was seated in the cabin.

Hersman followed by passing along observations from crew members, stressing that they have not yet been corroborated by evidence and analysis:

"At about 500 feet," the instructor pilot "realized that they were low," Hersman says. He saw three red lights and one white light on the Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) system. He told the pilot to pull back.

"They had set speed at 137 knots, and he assumed that the auto-throttles were maintaining speed."

"Between 500 feet and 200 feet, they had a lateral deviation," Hersman says, "and they were low. They were trying to correct at that point."

At 200 feet, the instructor saw that the 4 PAPIs were red, indicating that they were too low. The airspeed was in the hatched area. Deciding that the plane needed to go around, the instructor pilot went to push throttles forward to go around, but the other pilot had already done it.

In their review of the status of equipment in the cockpit, investigators found that the flight director was on for the right seat, and off for the left seat. The auto-throttles were armed.

All three fire handles were extended; they operate machinery to put out fires on the aircraft.

The speed-brake lever was down, showing "it was not being used," Hersman says.

As for the crash, "after the impact, the aircraft ballooned, it yawed left, and it went into a 360-degree spin," Hersman says.

In the debris field, Hersman says "when you get down to the seawall, you can identify where the first strike" occurred. She says the main landing gear hit first, and then the tail.

As for the question about an emergency slide deploying in the aircraft, Hersman confirms that a chute had indeed done so, briefly trapping a flight attendant.

"There were 8 doors and 8 slides that were removed," she says. "One of the doors... was outside the aircraft on the ground." The others were still attached.

The first officer who had been in the cockpit received medical treatment for a cracked rib; neither of the other pilots were admitted to the hospital.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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