Slow landing speed of San Francisco jet probed
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – 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.
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
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,
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.
Two other pilots were aboard, with teams of rotating at the controls.
The plane's Pratt & Whitney engines were on
idle and the pilots were flying under visual flight rules, Hersman said.
Under visual flight procedures in the Boeing 777, a wide-body jet, the
autopilot would typically have been turned off while the automatic
throttle, which regulates speed, would been on until the plane had
descended to 500 feet (150 meters) in altitude, Coffman said. At that
point, pilots would normally check their airspeed before switching off
the autothrottle to continue a “hand fly” approach, he said.
There was no indication in the discussions between
the pilots and the air traffic controllers that there were problems with
Survivors and rescuers said it was nothing less
than astonishing that nearly everyone survived after a frightful scene
of fire burning inside the fuselage, pieces of the aircraft scattered
across the runway and people fleeing for their lives.
In the first comments on the crash by a crew
member, cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye said that seconds before impact she
felt that something was wrong.
“Right before touchdown, I felt like the plane was
trying to take off. I was thinking 'what's happening?' and then I felt a
bang,” Lee told reporters Sunday night in San Francisco. “That bang
felt harder than a normal landing. It was a very big shock. Afterward,
there was another shock and the plane swayed to the right and to the
She said that during the evacuation, two inflatable
slides that were supposed to inflate toward the outside instead
inflated toward the inside of the plane, hurting two Asiana flight
attendants. Pilots came to rescue the flight attendants but even after
getting injured, she said that the crew did not leave the plane until
after the passengers evacuated. She said she was the last one to go.
South Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and
Transport said the 291 passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South
Koreans, 64 Americans, three Canadians, three Indians, one Japanese, one
Vietnamese and one person from France.
The two dead passengers have been identified as
students from China -16 and 17 years old – who were scheduled to attend
summer camp in California with dozens of classmates. Hospital officials
said Sunday that two of the people who remained hospitalized in critical
condition were paralyzed with spinal injuries, while another two showed
“road rash” injuries consistent with being dragged.
Foucrault, the coroner, said one of the bodies was
found on the tarmac near where the plane's tail broke off when it
slammed into the runway. The other was found on the left side of the
plane about 30 feet (10 meters) away from where the jetliner came to
rest after it skidded down the runway. Foucrault said an autopsy he
expects to be completed by Monday will involve determining whether the
second girl's death was caused by injuries suffered in the crash or “a
He said he did not get a close enough look at the victims on Saturday to know whether they had external injuries.
The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and
stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before making the nearly 11-hour
trip to San Francisco.
On audio recordings from the air traffic tower,
controllers told all pilots in other planes to stay put after the crash.
“All runways are closed. Airport is closed. San Francisco tower,” said
At one point, the pilot of a United Airlines plane radioed.
“We see people … that need immediate attention,” the pilot said. “They are alive and walking around.”
“Think you said people are just walking outside the airplane right now?” the controller replied.
“Yes,” answered the pilot of United Flight 885. “Some people, it looks like, are struggling.”
When the plane hit the ground, oxygen masks dropped
down, said Xu Da, a product manager at an Internet company in Hangzhou,
China, who was sitting with his wife and teenage son near the back of
the plane. He stood up and saw sparking – perhaps from exposed
electrical wires – and a gaping hole through the back of the plane where
its galley was torn away along with the tail.
Xu and his family escaped through the opening. Once
on the tarmac, they watched the plane catch fire, and firefighters hose
In the chaotic moments after the landing, when
baggage was tumbling from the overhead bins onto passengers and people
all around her were screaming, Wen Zhang grabbed her 4-year-old son, who
hit the seat in front of him and broke his leg.
Spotting a hole at the back of the jumbo jet where the bathroom had been, she carried her boy to safety.
“I had no time to be scared,” she said.
Nearby, people who escaped were dousing themselves with water from the bay, possibly to cool burn injuries, authorities said.
By the time the flames were out, much of the top of
the fuselage had burned away. The tail section was gone, with pieces of
it scattered across the beginning of the runway. One engine was gone,
and the other was no longer on the wing.
Lowy reported from Washington, D.C. Associated
Press writers Terry Collins, Terry Chea, Lisa Leff and Sudhin Thanawala
in San Francisco, David Koenig in Dallas, Louise Watt in Beijing and
Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.