July 10, 2013

NTSB: San Francisco pilots relied on auto control

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The pilots of Asiana Flight 214 relied on automated cockpit equipment to control the jetliner's speed as they landed at San Francisco airport, but realized too late they were flying too low and too slow before the aircraft crashed, investigators said Tuesday.

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The wreckage of Asiana Flight 214, which crashed on Saturday, July 6, 2013, is seen on a tarmac at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Asiana Airlines President and CEO Yoon Young-doo, fourth from right, and board members bow to the nation during press conference about Asiana Airlines flight 214 which took off from Seoul and crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport at Asiana Airlines head office in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, July 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

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The new details were not conclusive about the cause of Saturday's crash, but they raised potential areas of focus: Was there a mistake made in setting the automatic speed control, did it malfunction or were the pilots not fully aware of what the plane was doing?

One of the most puzzling aspects of the crash has been why the wide-body Boeing 777 jet came in far too low and slow, clipping its landing gear and then its tail on a rocky seawall just short the runway. The crash killed two of the 307 people and injured scores of others, most not seriously.

Among those injured were two flight attendants in the back of the plane, who survived despite being thrown onto the runway when the plane slammed into the seawall and the tail broke off.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said the autothrottle was set for 157 mph and the pilots assumed it was controlling the plane's airspeed. However, the autothrottle was only "armed" or ready for activation, she said.

Hersman said the pilot at the controls, identified by Korean authorities as Lee Gang-guk, was only about halfway through his training on the Boeing 777 and was landing that type of aircraft at the San Francisco airport for the first time ever. And the co-pilot, identified as Lee Jeong-Min, was on his first trip as a flight instructor.

In the 777, turning the autothrottle on is a two-step process — first it is armed, then it is engaged, Boeing pilots said. Hersman didn't say whether the Asiana's autothrottle was engaged.

Bob Coffman, an American Airlines captain who has flown 777s, said the only way he could think of for Asiana plane to slow as quickly at the NTSB has described would be if somehow the autothrottle has shifted into the idle mode.

Only moments before the crash did the training captain realize the autothrottle wasn't controlling the plane's speed, Hersman said.

"This is one of the two hallmarks of complexity and challenge in the industry right now," said Doug Moss, an Airbus A320 a pilot for a major U.S. airline and an aviation safety consultant in Torrance, Calif. "It's automation confusion because from what Deborah Hersman said, it appears very likely the pilots were confused as to what autothrottle and pitch mode the airplane was in. It's very likely they believed the autothrottles were on when in fact they were only armed."

Their last second efforts to rev the plane back up and abort the landing failed, although numerous survivors report hearing the engines roar just before impact.

"We just seemed to be flying in way too low. Last couple seconds before it happened the engines really revved into high gear. Just waaah! Like the captain was saying 'oh no, we gotta get out of here.' And then, boom! The back end just lifted up, just really jolted everybody in their seats," said crash survivor Elliot Stone, who owns a martial arts studio in Scotts Valley.

While in the U.S., drug and alcohol tests are standard procedure after air accidents, this is not required for foreign pilots and Hersman said the Asiana pilots had not undergone any testing

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