Investigation of Jet Crash Focuses on Cockpit Choices

By Sang-Hun, Choe | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Investigation of Jet Crash Focuses on Cockpit Choices


Sang-Hun, Choe, International Herald Tribune


The pilot who flew the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed in San Francisco on Saturday was a 19-year veteran of the airline but had tried to land a Boeing 777 only once.

It was Lee Kang-guk's first attempt at landing a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport, and it ended in disaster. The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on Saturday killed two passengers, injured 182 others and tarnished the reputation of South Korea's aviation industry, whose leaders had thought it was leaving a poor safety record behind.

"For him, this was a training flight, as he was switching to a new type of plane," Asiana Airlines' president, Yoon Young-doo, said Monday of Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee, 46, a 19-year veteran with Asiana, has logged more than 9,700 hours of flying, piloting Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and Boeing 747s to destinations including San Francisco, according to Asiana. He had just 43 hours of flying time with 777s and had made eight landings with them, at airports serving London, Los Angeles and Tokyo. He was still on a "familiarization flight" program when he was at the controls Saturday; a senior colleague with more experience landing 777s, at airports including San Francisco, sat beside him as co-pilot.

Choi Jong-ho, a senior aviation policy official with the South Korean Transportation Ministry, said Monday that South Korean investigators had arrived in San Francisco and interviewed the four pilots on Flight 214, who worked two-man shifts during the flight. He would not speculate about whether the cockpit decision to let Mr. Lee, instead of one of his more experienced colleagues, land the plane had contributed to the accident. He said that investigators from agencies including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board were looking into all possibilities.

Any challenge to the pilots would have been further complicated by the shutdown of a ground-based electronic system called a glide scope indicator, which helps keep planes at the correct descent angle. But the pilots had been notified that the system had been shut down, government and Asiana officials in Seoul said.

"Ultimately, it's the trainer pilot who is responsible for the flight," Mr. Yoon said, referring to Lee Jeong-min, 49, the more experienced pilot who sat in the co-pilot's seat while Lee Kang-guk was landing the plane. He had 3,220 hours of flying time with 777s.

"Familiarization flights" are part of the routine for pilots learning to fly a new kind of plane, officials at both the Transportation Ministry and Asiana said. At Asiana, the pilots are required to go through manual and simulator training -- Asiana has run its own simulator training center since 1998 -- and make 20 familiarization flights in the presence of more experienced "mentor" or "trainer" pilots.

The crash Saturday was Asiana's third accident involving fatalities since its founding in 1988. In 1993, a 737 on a domestic flight crashed into a mountain while making a descent amid high winds and poor visibility. Sixty-six people were killed in the crash, which was blamed on pilot error. In 2011, a 747 cargo jet bound for Shanghai crashed into the sea off Korea's southern coast, killing two pilots. An inquiry later blamed mechanical problems.

South Korea's aviation industry long had a tarnished safety record that mainly involved Asiana's bigger, older domestic rival, Korean Air. …

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