Two pilots who were at the controls of an Asiana Airlines flight that crashed at San Francisco International Airport in July each thought the other should take the lead in calling off the landing when the plane flew dangerously low at slow speed, according to a federal report.
Pilot Lee Kang Kuk, who was being trained in flying Boeing 777s, told National Transportation Safety Board investigators he believed his instructor, as the pilot in charge, should make the decision.
“The instructor pilot got the authority,” Lee said in an interview three days after the fatal July 6 crash.
Asked whether he thought he should take action when the plane appeared to be not yet stabilized at 300 feet in altitude, Lee answered, “That’s very hard because normally in our Korean culture the one-step-higher level has the final decision.”
But instructor Lee Jung Min, by contrast, told investigators that the person acting as the “flying pilot,” in this case the trainee, was responsible for calling out either “stabilized” or “go around,” meaning that the landing should be aborted, at 500 feet in altitude.
The flying pilot “was supposed to be the one calling out ‘go around,’” an investigator quoted Lee Jung Min as saying.
Summaries of interviews with the two men and two back-up pilots were included in one of 135 documents released by the NTSB today at the start of a day-long fact-finding hearing in Washington, D.C. The board’s final report on the crash is expected next summer.
Three teenage schoolgirls from China died as a result of the crash and more than 180 passengers were injured after the jet hit a seawall bordering San Francisco Bay and its tail broke off.
Both pilots acknowledged in their interviews in July that they themselves and the plane’s first officer also had the power to call for a go-around in an emergency situation.
Lee Jung Min said that as he realized the plane was flying too slowly at 200 feet above the water on the approach to the runway, he called out, “I have the controls, go around” and pushed the thrust levers forward. Two or three seconds later, he felt the aircraft hit the ground, the summary said.
Lee Kang Kuk told the NTSB investigators that at 300 feet, he thought “the very dangerous condition, now I am a captain position.
“I can do that” (the go-around call) “but it is very hard,” he said.
At that moment, however, Lee Kang Kuk said he was blinded for a brief second by a “very bright” beam or spot of light coming from straight ahead, outside the plane. When he looked down at the controls again, he saw his colleague already doing the go-around procedure, he said.
He said he didn’t know what the light was, but said it might have been a reflection of sunlight. No other pilots on the flight reported seeing the light.
Lee Kang Kuk also told the NTSB staff that he found it “very stressful” to fly into the airport by using a visual approach without the use of the instrument landing aids in the airport’s glide-scope.
The aids were temporarily out of service because of airport construction.
He said he was “very concerned” about his ability to perform the visual approach, the report said.
During today’s hearing, Capt. Lee Sung Kil, chief pilot for Boeing 777s for South Korea-based Asiana, was asked about the reported stress.
The chief pilot said, “I do not understand or I cannot tell how much stress Captain Lee received,” but said he was a “very well-experienced pilot” with more than 10,000 hours of flying time. He said Asiana provides recurrent training to its pilots every six months on landing procedures, including visual approaches.
Asked whether he felt any concern about the ability of any Asiana pilot to land at the airport without glide-scope aids, Lee Sung Kil answered, “I do not have any concern.”
The three girls who died in the crash and its aftermath were on their way to a summer camp in Los Angeles.
One 16-year-old victim was found dead on the runway. Another 16-year-old, found in front of the left wing of the jet, was run over by San Francisco firefighters as she lay injured and covered with fire-fighting foam. A firefighter and a fire lieutenant who saw her before the foam was sprayed thought she appeared to be dead.
The third girl, who was 15, died in a hospital six days later after being critically injured in the crash.
A timeline document included among the 4,453 pages released by the NTSB today indicated that the second victim, Ye Meng Yuan, was run over by two different San Francisco Fire Department vehicles rather than one, as originally reported.
The timeline said the plane hit the seawall at 11:27 a.m. and came to a stop a few seconds later. At 11:36 a.m., the victim was pointed out by a firefighter to the driver of a rig called Rescue 10 as the pair prepared to spray foam on the left wing.
Then, at 11:50 a.m. the victim was “rolled over by Rescue 10” and at 12:01 p.m., another rig, Rescue 37, rolled over the victim, according to the timeline.
A Fire Department spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on the report today.
In October, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the girl’s death was a “tragic accident” and said he would not file any criminal charges.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said at the start of the hearing that the crash was the first fatal accident of a commercial airliner since a crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that claimed 50 lives in 2009.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News