NTSB Investigators Probe Clues Of Asiana Flight 214 Crash

More details are emerging about the crash of Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday that killed two people. The Boeing 777 jet nearly stalled on its approach to land, and the flight crew tried to take corrective action just seconds before it hit the ground. There's also word the pilot, while having extensive flying experience, had only 43 hours on the 777.

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If you have seen the images of the wreckage after a plan crash landed in San Francisco over the weekend, it is hard to believe more people weren't killed. There are huge, charred holes on the roof of the plane, and the tail is just gone. The crash-landing of Asiana Flight 214 Saturday did leave two people dead, and at least 50 others seriously injured.

Federal Transportation Safety officials say it's too early to draw any conclusions about why this happened, but a preliminary investigation indicates that the Boeing jet was flying too low as it made its approach to San Francisco International Airport, and that the pilot tried to abort the landing.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Video of the crash by a man standing far away from the runaway and distributed widely over the Internet is chilling.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

GONZALES: Asiana Flight 214 approaches the runaway with its nose up. The rear of the plane hits the ground first. It appears the plane then pitches forward, bouncing and pivoting on its nose, and then crashes down again, skidding across a nearby field in a cloud of dust and smoke.

A little more than 24 hours later, National Transportation Safety Board Chief Deborah Hersman offered her first assessment of what went wrong. Hersman said a preliminary review of the cockpit voice recorder indicates that the approach proceeds normally as the plane descends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DEBORAH HERSMAN: There is no discussion of any aircraft anomalies or concerns with the approach. A call from one of the crew members to increase speed was made approximately seven seconds prior to impact.

GONZALES: About three seconds later, the plane's stick shaker goes off. That's a warning to the pilots that the plane is about to stall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERSMAN: A call to initiate a go-around occurred 1.5 seconds before impact.

GONZALES: A go-around means the crew wants to avoid landing and make another approach. But it's too late, because the plane is already too low and has no time to pull up.

Hersman said the voice recorder provides more clues: When landing, the Boeing 777 has a target speed of 137 knots, or about 157 miles per hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERSMAN: I will tell you that the speed was significantly below 137 knots, and we're not talking about a few knots.

GONZALES: Hersman added that it's far too early to reach a conclusion of pilot error, because federal investigators are still in the opening stages of gathering facts. She said the flight crew and first responders have not yet been interviewed.

So there are still many more questions than answers. For example, one of a number of landing guidance systems at the airport was deactivated to allow for a construction project. Hersman said the pilot had other tools to land the plane, and that he had been cleared for a visual approach, meaning he shouldn't have had to rely on such a system.

But late yesterday, new revelations focused more attention on the pilot. A spokeswoman for Asiana Airlines in Seoul said the pilot had logged only 43 hours flying the Boeing 777. He does have almost 10,000 hours of flying experience, but this was his maiden flight to San Francisco with that jet.

PETER GOELZ: I was afraid that that was what was going to come out, that the 40-hour guy was going to be at the controls.

GONZALES: Peter Goelz is a former managing director at the NTSB. He said word about the pilot's lack of experience with the Boeing 777 had already reached him.

GOELZ: I mean, you don't want to point the finger. But if he was at the controls, that's going to be a major focus of the investigation.

GONZALES: Goelz says that if there is any good news coming out of this event, it's that so many people survived. Doctors at San Francisco General Hospital say they are treating many crash victims with spinal column injuries, but that they are also seeing many severe abdominal injuries with visible imprints of seat belts.

There are also reports yesterday confirmed by San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes White, that one of the two Chinese students killed in the crash may have been run over by a rescue vehicle. The investigation into that and the rest of the circumstances surrounding Asiana Flight 214 will continue for in the weeks and months to come.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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