National Transportation Safety Board / AP
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | 2:47 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | 6:50 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — As Flight 214 descended over San Francisco Bay, both Asiana Airlines pilots were trying something new.
In the left seat of the cockpit sat Lee Gang-kuk, a 46-year-old pilot with 35 hours of experience flying a Boeing 777 who was landing the big jet for his first time at San Francisco International Airport. At his right was Lee Jeong-Min, a trainer making his first trip as an instructor pilot.
While the two men had years of aviation experience, this mission involved unfamiliar duties, and it was the first time they had flown together. The flight came to a tragic end when the airliner, which came in too low and too slow, crash-landed on Saturday, killing two passengers and injuring many others as it skittered and spun 100 feet.
"The question is why did it land short. Obviously the captain is responsible, and in this case it's the instructor in the right seat who is responsible," said Kees Rietsema, a dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday the pilot trainee told investigators he was blinded by a light at about 500 feet, which would have been 34 seconds before impact and the point at which the airliner began to slow and drop precipitously. She said lasers have not been ruled out.
It was unclear, however, if the flash might have played a role in the crash.
The agency also said that after the crash-landing, passengers were told to stay seated while the crew contacted the control tower as part of safety procedure. People did not begin fleeing the aircraft until 90 seconds later when a fire was spotted outside the plane.
At that point, the doors were opened and escape slides were inflated. Two flight attendants were pinned by slides that inflated inside during the impact.
Investigators trying to piece together what went wrong will consider the report about the light and the pairing of the pilots, who were assigned to work together through a tightly regulated system developed after several deadly crashes in the 1980s were blamed in part on inexperience in the cockpit.
They will also be examining their working relationship, and whether junior officers were comfortable challenging their managers, and whether senior pilots will welcome that feedback, Hersman said.
"That's what the airline needs to do, be responsible so that in the cockpit you're matching the best people, especially when you're introducing someone to a new aircraft," former NTSB Chairman James Hall said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Mary Cummings said it's common for two commercial pilots who have never worked together before to be assigned to the same flight.
But she said the military tries to have crews work together more permanently.
"Research would tell you that crew pairing with the same people over longer periods of time is safer," she said. "When two people fly together all the time, you get into a routine that's more efficient. You have experience communicating."
Jeff Skiles, a US Airways first officer, said that with the right training it should not matter if a pilot new to a plane is paired with a pilot making his first trip as a training captain.
"Everybody had to have their first time," Skiles said. "You can't show up and have 500 hours experience in aircraft."
Skiles was the co-pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson" jet that lost thrust in both engines after colliding with a flock of geese. The skillful flying of captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and teamwork between Skiles and Sullenberger was credited for a near-perfect water landing on the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey that saved the lives of all aboard.
The January 2009 accident happened after the pilots had been paired together only four days.
Details emerging from Asiana pilot interviews, cockpit recorders and control-tower communications indicate that Lee Gang-kuk, who was halfway through his certification training for the Boeing 777, and his co-pilot and instructor, Lee Jeong-Min, thought the airliner's speed was being controlled by an autothrottle set for 157 mph.
Inspectors found that the autothrottle had been "armed," or made ready for activation, Hersman said. But investigators are still determining whether it had been engaged. In the last two minutes, there was a lot of use of autopilot and autothrusters, and investigators are going to look into whether pilots made the appropriate commands and if they knew what they were doing.
When the pilots realized the plane was approaching the waterfront runway too low and too slow, they both reached for the throttle. Passengers heard a loud roar as the plane revved up in a last-minute attempt to abort the landing.
The two pilots at the controls during the accident had also been in the cockpit for takeoff. Then they rested during the flight while a second pair of pilots took over. The two pairs swapped places again about 90 minutes before landing, giving the trainee a chance to fly during the more challenging approach phase.
The investigation is ongoing, and Hersman cautioned against speculating about the cause. But she stressed that even if the autothrottle malfunctioned, the pilots were ultimately responsible for control of the airliner.
"There are two pilots in the cockpit for a reason," she said Wednesday. "They're there to fly, to navigate, to communicate and if they're using automation a big key is to monitor."
As the trainee pilot flew, she said, the instructor captain, who is ultimately responsible for flight safety, was tasked with monitoring.
A third pilot was in the cockpit jumpseat to monitor the landing. Hersman confirmed Wednesday that he was calling out problems about their speed as they approached the runway.
Crash survivor Brian Thomson, who was returning from a martial arts competition in South Korea and walked away physically unscathed, said he's not concerned about lack of experience in the cockpit.
"At some point you have to start at hour one, hour two. It's just natural. Everyone starts a career someway, somehow. Starts a new plane someway, somehow. They have to have training," he said.
The flight originated in Shanghai and stopped over in Seoul before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco.
A dozen survivors remained hospitalized Wednesday, half of them flight attendants, including three who were thrown from the airliner during the accident. One has been identified as 25-year-old Maneenat Tinnakul, whose father told the Thairath newspaper the family was given a visa to visit their daughter in San Francisco. He said Maneenat suffered a minor backache.
Another flight attendant, identified as Sirithip Singhakarn, was reportedly in an intensive care unit.
Meanwhile, fire officials continued their investigation into whether one of their trucks might have run over one of the two Chinese teenagers killed in the crash. The students, Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, were part of a larger group headed for a Christian summer camp with dozens of classmates. Several of those camps have been canceled and the students are returning home.
The Asiana accident shares some similarities to the last fatal U.S. airline crash near Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009. In that case, the Colgan Air flight 3407 captain flying the regional airliner, Marvin Renslow, had almost 3,400 hours of flying experience but only a little over 100 hours at the controls of that type of plane, a Bombardier Q-400.
Neither Renslow nor the first officer were paying close attention to the airspeed as the plane was beginning to descend for a landing. It wasn't until the plane's stick shaker went off, violently vibrating Renslow's yoke to warn of an impending stall that they realized the plane had dangerously slowed and was losing lift.
There was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane, and there was a brief period in which the pilots possibly have saved the plane if they had acted correctly, NTSB determined later. Instead, Renslow pushed the plane into a full stall, sending it plunging into a house below. All 49 people aboard and a man on the ground were killed.
Citing the similarities to the Asiana crash, two New York Democrats — Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins — on Wednesday called on the Federal Aviation Administration to issue long-delayed safety regulations on pilot training and flight simulator training. The rules would require, for example, that pilots undergo more extensive training on how to prevent stalls and recover if a stall occurs.
"While the (Asiana) investigation is still ongoing, one thing is clear, this crash and the other recent crashes like Flight 3407 demonstrate a troubling pattern in which pilots are mishandling air speed, which can lead to fatal stalls," Schumer said.