Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Too-Slow Approach Noticed Too Late

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Too-Slow Approach Noticed Too Late

Article excerpt

The pilot at the controls on Asiana Flight 214 was said to have had only 43 hours of experience flying a Boeing 777, and the airline said that it was his first time piloting a 777 into the San Francisco airport.


The nearly 11-hour trip across the Pacific had gone smoothly as Asiana Flight 214 approached San Francisco International Airport -- an uneventful flight for the 291 passengers, including dozens of Chinese teenagers who were arriving for a summer camp to study English and tour colleges.

But from seat 30K, Benjamin Levy knew something was wrong. Outside his window, as the plane approached the airport where Mr. Levy, a frequent traveler, knew there should have been tarmac, there was instead a terrifying sight: the waters of San Francisco Bay.

"The pilot put the gas full steam, and we tipped back up -- he went full throttle to regain a bit of altitude," Mr. Levy said from his home on Sunday, a day after he survived the crash landing that killed two 16-year-old girls among the group of Chinese students and injured 180 of the passengers arriving from South Korea.

"We were so close to the water, the water got sprayed up," Mr. Levy said. "There were walls of water beside the window -- before we started hitting earth."

When the screaming ceased inside the Boeing 777, the plane rested on its belly, its tail and engines sheared by the crash.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that the pilots came in too slowly, took too long to realize it and tried to abort the landing seconds before the crash. The South Korean Transport Ministry said the pilot, Lee Kang-guk, had only 43 hours of experience flying a 777. It was Mr. Lee's first time piloting a 777 into the San Francisco airport, an Asiana spokeswoman said. "For now, this itself should not be cited as if it were the cause of the accident," said Chang Man-hee, a senior aviation policy official at the Transport Ministry. "Mr. Lee himself was a veteran pilot going through what every pilot has to when switching to a new type of plane."

In a dramatic moment-by-moment account, the N.T.S.B.'s chairwoman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, suggested that crew members had little inkling of the impending crash until about seven seconds before impact, when one is heard on a cockpit recorder calling for an increase in speed. The call came too late. Three seconds later, an alarm sounded a warning that the plane was about to stall, Ms. Hersman said. One and a half seconds before impact, the pilots advanced the throttles to get more power in an attempt to avert a crash. But before the plane could gain altitude, it hit the sea wall, snapping off its tail section before skidding to a stop and catching fire.

Ms. Hersman's comments, delivered at a news briefing, were based on preliminary data provided by the Boeing 777's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. Other data from a private firm, FlightAware, indicated that as the plane lost forward speed, it descended much faster than normal.

Ms. Hersman emphasized that investigators could not yet draw any conclusions about the cause of the crash. But she did not indicate any sign of a mechanical malfunction and focused almost exclusively on the actions of the pilots as they prepared for landing.

"Everything is on the table right now," she said. "It is too early to rule anything out."

Saturday was clear, with light winds, no wind shear and visibility of up to 10 miles, or 16 kilometers, Ms. Hersman said. Air-traffic controllers had cleared the Asiana flight for a visual approach -- meaning no guiding instruments were needed to land the plane.

What happened to the passengers depended in part on where they were sitting.

Near the front of the plane, including the first-class cabin, some passengers fled clutching their carry-on luggage. In the center of the plane where Mr. …

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