No Clear Answers On Cause Of Commercial Jet Crash

NPR's Laura Sydell has the latest on the plane that crash landed on Saturday at San Francisco International Airport. Two people were killed and investigators have not yet reported on the cause of the crash.

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REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir.

Coming up, we'll hear from a long-haul commercial pilot. He'll talk about his experiences. First, though, NPR's Laura Sydell joins me from San Francisco with the latest news on the crash. Hi, Laura.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHEIR: So investigators have been looking into this crash now for more than 24 hours. Can you tell us what they found so far?

SYDELL: Well, the National Transportation Safety board recovered two recorders from the plane: one is the cockpit voice recorder and the other is the flight data recorder. Now, these devices contain thousands of data points about the entire flight. On the voice recorder, we hear them get clearance from San Francisco and about - that's about seven minutes before they're scheduled to land. And everything seems fine.

But then it all changes in the span of just 10 seconds. First, a member of the crew is heard calling for more speed. Three seconds later, the plane tries to warn them there's a problem. Now, here's NTSB chair Deborah Hersman who says something called a stick shaker is activated.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: There was a stick shaker that activated. This is both an oral and a physical cue to the crew that they are approaching a stall.

SYDELL: That means the engines were about to shut down. Two and a half seconds later, you hear a voice from the cockpit asking air traffic control if they can pull up and try another landing. And a second a half later, the jet hits the ground.

SHEIR: Now, Laura, by now, many of us have seen the terrible images of flight 214, how it just broke apart as it tried to land. You see the roof is ripped off, the cabin burned by fire. So can they take these recordings and tell whether it was a crew error or a mechanical problem or something else?

SYDELL: Well, I should say, although it sounds like it could be pilot error, there's a lot we don't know. For example, there are systems on the ground that assist pilots in landing, and we know that at least one of them wasn't working. It's called the instrument landing system or ILS, and it hasn't been functioning since June because of construction at the airport.

Now, what this system does is basically warn a pilot if they're coming in too low. But literally, thousands of flights have landed in San Francisco without using it. So, you know, it was clear day. No reports of weather problems. And pilots are trained to use their eyes when they land a plane. It could also have been a mechanical problem with the plane itself. But keep in mind, this would be the first time that anyone would have been killed in a crash of a Boeing 777. It has a great safety record. And the CEO of Asiana Airlines said he did not believe there was a mechanical problem.

Now, as for pilot error, it's more than a 10-hour flight. That's exhausting. But the pilot was a seasoned veteran, and he had a lot of support. He had a co-pilot and two other backup pilots, and that's standard for a flight of this length.

SHEIR: Laura, where does the investigation go from here?

SYDELL: Well, NTSB chair Deborah Hersman said they will take the remains of the jet apart. They're going to look at everything from the cockpit instruments, windshields, flight kits, training manuals. They'll be taking the engine apart. They'll be looking for evidence of a fire that may have originated in the engine. And they have survey teams that are still documenting this very extensive debris field. And, of course, one of the most important steps is they're going to interview extensively the pilot and the crew.

SHEIR: That's NPR's Laura Sydell in San Francisco. Laura, thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

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