July 8, 2013

Slow landing speed of San Francisco jet probed

Officials say the probe is also focusing on whether the airport or plane's equipment also could have malfunctioned.

By Jason Dearen and Joan Lowy / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Investigators have determined that Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was traveling "significantly below" the target speed during its approach and that the crew tried to abort the landing just before it smashed onto the runway. What they don't yet know is whether the pilot's inexperience with the type of aircraft and at San Francisco's airport played a role.

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Investigators work amid the wreckage of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 in San Francisco as they try to determine the cause of Saturday’s accident. Two people died in the crash and officials say it appears the plane was flying too slow when it struck a sea wall just in front of the runway.

The Associated Press/NTSB

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ASIANA AIRLINES ACCIDENT SUMMARY

WHAT HAPPENED: The Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing after a likely 10-hour-plus flight from Seoul. The flight originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul before the long trek to San Francisco.

FULL FLIGHT: There were 307 people aboard. Two people aboard the plane died. Of the 182 injured people taken to hospitals, 19 remained hospitalized Sunday, six of them in critical condition. The remaining 133 had minor to moderate injuries, while many of the other passengers or crew members had more minor injuries that didn't require extra treatment. Thirty of the passengers were children.

PASSENGERS: South Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said the plane's passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 61 Americans, three Canadians, three from India, one Japanese, one Vietnamese and one from France, while the nationalities of the remaining three haven't been confirmed. Chinese state media identified the dead as two 16-year-old girls who were  students in China's eastern Zhejiang province.

A day after the jetliner crash landed in San Francisco, killing two people and sending more than 180 to hospitals, officials said Sunday that the probe was also focusing on whether the airport or plane's equipment also could have malfunctioned.

The South Korea government announced Monday that officials will inspect engines and landing equipment on all Boeing 777 planes owned by Asiana and Korean Air, the national carrier.

Also Sunday, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said he was investigating whether one of the two teenage passengers killed actually survived the crash but was run over by a rescue vehicle rushing to aid victims fleeing the burning aircraft. Remarkably, 305 of 307 passengers and crew survived the crash and more than a third didn't even require hospitalization. Only a small number were critically injured.

Investigators said that the weather was unusually fair for foggy San Francisco. The winds were mild, too. During the descent, with their throttles set to idle, the pilots never discussed having any problems with the plane or its positioning until it was too late.

Seven seconds before the Boeing 777 struck down, a member of the flight crew made a call to increase the jet's lagging speed, National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman said at a briefing based on the plane's cockpit and flight data recorders. Three seconds later came a warning that the plane was about to stall.

Two-and-a-half seconds later, the crew attempted to abort the landing and go back up for another try. The air traffic controller guiding the plane heard the crash that followed almost instantly, Hersman said.

While investigators from both the U.S. and South Korea are in the early stages of an investigation that will include a weekslong examination of the wreckage and alcohol tests for the crew, the news confirmed what survivors and other witnesses had reported: a slow-moving airliner flying low to the ground.

"We are not talking about a few knots" difference between the aircraft's target landing speed of 137 knots, or 157 mph (250 kph), and how fast it was going as it came in for a landing, Hersman said.

Pilots normally try to land at the target speed, in this case 137 knots, plus an additional 5 more knots, said Bob Coffman, an American Airlines captain who has flown 777s. He said the briefing raises an important question: "Why was the plane going so slow?"

The airline said Monday in Seoul that the pilot at the controls had little experience flying that type of plane and was landing one for the first time at that airport.

Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said that Lee Gang-guk, who was at the controls, had nearly 10,000 hours flying other planes but only 43 in the 777, a plane she said he still was getting used to flying. Another pilot on the flight, Lee Jeong-min, had about 12,390 hours of flying experience, including 3,220 hours on the 777, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in South Korea. Lee was the deputy pilot, tasked with helping Lee Gang-guk get accustomed to the 777, according to Asiana Airlines.

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