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In Last Seconds, Pilots Were Correcting Plane's Problems

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Federal investigators are piecing together what was happening in the cockpit of Asiana Flight 214 when it clipped a seawall and crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two people. Federal investigators have interviewed the cockpit crew, and released some new details about problems the crew had in the final seconds before impact.


We know a few things about what went wrong when Asiana flight 214 clipped a sea wall and crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. The Boeing 777 from Seoul, South Korea was flying too low and too slow as it made a descent into San Francisco. That accident left two teenage girls dead and scores more with serious injuries.

Federal investigators have interviewed the cockpit crew and yesterday they released new details about problems the crew had in the final seconds before impact. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Here's what investigators knew before interviewing the cockpit crew. Seven seconds before impact, a pilot noticed that the plane was flying too slow and called for more speed. Four seconds before impact a warning system alerted the crew that the plane was about to stall. One and a half seconds before impact, there was a call to go around, or abort the landing. Here's National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, speaking yesterday to reporters.


DEBORAH HERSMAN: One of the very critical things that needs to be monitored on an approach to landing is speed and so we need to understand what was going on in the cockpit and also what was going on with the aircraft.

GONZALES: Now, based on interviews with the crew, investigators are getting more clues as to what went wrong. At between 200 and 500 feet in altitude, the pilots were correcting two problems with the position of the aircraft. Deborah Hersman.


HERSMAN: And so they were making corrections. So they're making corrections vertically because they knew they were low and they're making lateral corrections to line up on the center line.

GONZALES: But a plane needs proper speed to maneuver and land safely.


HERSMAN: They had set speed at 137 knots and he assumed the auto-throttles were maintaining speed.

GONZALES: That assumption proved wrong. Whether the auto-throttles were set improperly or had a mechanical malfunction, Hersman didn't, or couldn't, say. All we know is that when the pilot tried to increase speed, it was too late. The plane's landing gear and then the tail section hit a seawall hundreds of feet before the runway.

Hersman confirmed earlier reports that the flying pilot was halfway through his training on the Boeing 777 and that this was his maiden voyage, on that jet, into San Francisco. The flying pilot was accompanied by an instructor pilot who had more experience with the Boeing 777. But the instructor was also a novice of sorts.


HERSMAN: He reported that this was his first trip as an instructor pilot.

GONZALES: The pilot interviews are only part of the investigation. But this focus on the flight crew is important, says Peter Goelz. He's a former managing director for the NTSB and now consults on aviation safety.

PETER GOELZ: The challenge for flight has been, over past decade, human performance, human factors. How do you get human beings to interact in the most efficient manner and in a safe manner?

GONZALES: For the third time in as many days, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman cautioned reporters about reaching premature conclusions, saying that the investigation is really just beginning. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.


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