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San Francisco plane crash: Pilot had 43 hours flying Boeing 777

July 7, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The pilot of the plane that crash-landed in San Francisco had just 43 hours of experience flying the Boeing 777, Asiana Airlines officials said Sunday.

Though pilot Lee Kang-kook had significant flight time on other jets, he had flown a Boeing 777 nine previous times to other airports. It was also his first time flying the jet into SFO, Asiana Airlines spokeswoman Lee Hyo-min said.

"He is a veteran pilot with almost 10,000 hours on other aircrafts like the 747," she said. "He was in the process of getting a license for the new 777."

Lee flew with an experienced Boeing 777 pilot mentor, in accordance with world standard, the spokeswoman said.

Four pilots were aboard the plane and they rotated on a two-person shift during the flight, according to The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in South Korea.

The aircraft, one of 12 operated by Asiana, was delivered in March 2006 and had made 5,300 take offs and landings.

The 777-200 is a long-range plane from Boeing. The twin-engine aircraft is often used for flights from one continent to another because it can travel 12 hours or more without refueling.

National Transportation Safety Board Investigation

At a Sunday news conference, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the recorder showed that a call was placed to initiate a "go-around" 1.5 seconds before impact, meaning to abort the landing, come around and give it another try.

Hersman also said the recorder caught the sound of the stick shaker 4 seconds before impact. The stick shaker is the controls the pilot holds. Shaking indicates some sort of stall.

Also, Hersman said the recorder showed there was a call to increase airspeed about 7 seconds before impact.

Before that, she said, there was no indication in the recordings that the aircraft was having any problems before it crashed, killing two passengers and injuring 182 others.

Hersman also described what investigators found so far on the flight data recorder, which indicated that during the approach, the throttles were at idle and airspeed was slowed to below the target air speed.

Hersman said investigators are looking into what role the shutdown of a key navigational aid may have played in the crash. She said the glide slope, which is a ground-based aid that helps pilots stay on course while landing, had been shut down since June.

She said pilots were sent a notice warning that the glide slope wasn't available. Hersman told CBS' "Face the Nation" that there were many other navigation tools available to help pilots land. She said investigators will be "taking a look at it all."

Also at the news conference, it was announced that SFO's third runway, 28-Right, which is the one parallel to where the crash occurred, has been reopened. This means that SFO now has three of its four runways open, which is good news for travelers with delayed and canceled flights.

Investigators took the two recorders to Washington, D.C., overnight to begin examining its contents for clues to the last moments of the plane before the crash, officials said. The National Transportation Safety Board posted a photo of the plane's data and cockpit voice recorders on its Twitter account Sunday morning, stating in the caption that the recorders are in NTSB's Washington lab.

The investigation will also include interviews with the pilots, crew and passengers.

"I think we're very thankful that the numbers were not worse when it came to fatalities and injuries," said National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "It could have been much worse."

Victims

Meantime, more information about the victims are coming to light. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said at a Sunday news conference outside San Francisco General Hospital the two 16-year-old girls who died were found on either side of the plane near the "front middle."

The coroner is also looking into whether one of the victims in the Asiana Airlines plane crash was run over and killed by a rescue vehicle.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said Sunday that senior San Francisco Fire Department officials told him Saturday that one of the 16-year-olds may have been struck on the runaway.

Foucrault says an autopsy will involve determining whether the girl's death was caused by injuries suffered in the crash or "a secondary incident." The autopsy is expected to be completed Monday.

Investigators are still trying to determine whether they were alive or dead when rescuers reached the scene. Hayes-White said first responders told her they saw people at the edge of the bay dousing themselves with water, possibly to cool burn injuries.

As of Sunday evening, 19 people in the crash remain hospitalized, with six in critical condition.

Also, San Francisco General Hospital Chief of Surgery Margaret Knudson said at least two people injured that were treated there are paralyzed and two others suffered road rash-type injuries suggesting they were dragged.

She said doctors at the hospital have also seen abdominal and orthopedic injuries and head trauma. Patients with severe abdominal injuries and spinal fractures appear to have suffered them from being thrown forward and back while restrained by seat belts.

The two teenagers who died were identified as Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan. ABC News confirmed Sunday that the two were part of a 35-student group headed to West Hills for a summer study-abroad program.

The group had arranged to stay with host families in the Western San Fernando Valley. There was no word on whether the students will cancel their trip to Southern California. But if they do arrive in the Southland as planned, West Valley Christian is working to put together care packages to help replace their lost luggage.

The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul, South Korea, before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco, airport officials said. The airline said there were 16 crew members aboard and 291 passengers. Thirty of the passengers were children.

The South Korean government said the passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 61 Americans, three Canadians, three from India, one Japanese, one Vietnamese and one from France, while the nationalities of the remaining three haven't been confirmed.

Asiana President Yoon Young-doo said at a televised news conference Saturday that it will take time to determine the cause of the crash. But when asked about the possibility of engine or mechanical problems, he said he doesn't believe they could have been the cause.

Aviation Expert Weighs In

USC professor and aviation safety expert Michael Barr is weighing in on what went wrong in the crash.

The final moments of the jet's approach to San Francisco's airport were captured on video. The Boeing 777 appears to hit a seawall before crashing.

"The pilot not flying has to tell the captain, 'airspeed, airspeed.' Tell him that you're going below what the calculated safe speed is for that approach," Barr said.

Barr is a certified pilot and teaches aviation safety management at USC. He says the call from the crew came too late.

"What in the world were they doing prior to that? They could see they were slow, they could see they were low. No conversation between the two. That's one of the questions that needs to be answered," he said.

Because questions are being raised about the pilot's experience flying the Boeing 777, Barr says the pilot's training history should be taken into account.

"We go back and see how many of these landings has he made. When was the last landing done manually?" Barr said.

Barr says it's too soon to determine blame.

"Why didn't he have the coordination between the first officer and himself? All the whys have to be answered before you can automatically, cut and dry, say pilot error," he said.

The NSTB says it will take several months to complete its investigation.

Witnesses Describe Crash

Passenger Vedpal Singh, who was sitting in the middle of the aircraft with his family, said there was no forewarning from the pilot or any crew members before the plane touched down hard and he heard a loud sound.

"We knew something was horrible wrong," said a visibly shaken Singh, who had a fractured collarbone and whose arm was in a sling.

He said the plane went silent before people tried to get out anyway they could. His 15-year-old son said luggage tumbled from the overhead bins.

Another passenger Benjamin Levy said it looked to him that the plane was flying too low and too close to the bay as it approached the runway. Levy, who was sitting in an emergency exit row, said he felt the pilot try to lift the jet up before it crashed.

Levy said he thought the maneuver might have saved some lives. "Everybody was screaming. I was trying to usher them out," he recalled of the first seconds after the landing. "I said: 'Stay calm, stop screaming, help each other out, don't push.'"

Asiana is a South Korean airline, second in size to national carrier Korean Air. It has recently tried to expand its presence in the United States, and joined the Star Alliance, which is anchored in the U.S. by United Airlines.

The most notable accident involving a 777 occurred on Jan. 17, 2008 at Heathrow Airport in London. British Airways Flight 28 landed hard about 1,000 feet short of the runway and slid onto the start of the runway. The impact broke the 777-200's landing gear. There were 47 injuries, but no fatalities.

ABC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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