After Asiana plane crashes in San Francisco, crew’s actions scrutinized

An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. Two passengers died, and many more were seriously injured:

The first major U.S. jumbo-jet crash in a dozen years began to unfold in utterly undramatic fashion just before noon Saturday when a big white passenger jet with red, blue and yellow flashings banked to the right and began to descend toward the wide runways of San Francisco International Airport.

Inside the plane, seat backs were in the upright position, tray tables were locked in place and the laptops, books and toys that had entertained for more than 10 hours and 5,651 miles were stowed away for landing.

Outside, the skies were clear of the fog that so often shrouds San Francisco Bay and the wind was light. Asiana Flight 214 was expected to reach the gate within minutes.

Benjamin Levy, who said he flies into the airport often, said he wondered about the approach when he saw that piers jutting out into the bay were much closer than he thought they ought to be.

A pilot who sat on the runway awaiting the okay to take off glanced up just before Flight 214 reached the runway and thought the nose of the Boeing 777 was tilted up at too high an angle for an approach.

And then in a searing scrape of metal against stone, the plane’s tail struck the sea wall that separates the edge of the runway from the bay. Within a minute or two, the plane was in flames.

Ashley Halsey

The National Transportation Safety Board released dramatic, up-close pictures of the plane that crashed in San Francisco on Saturday. No audio. (Associated Press)

The plane was approaching the runway too slowly, and it appeared that mistakes by the crew might have been responsible for the crash:

The investigation into the crash of the Boeing 777 came to focus more sharply on possible pilot error Sunday as the president of Asiana Airlines ruled out a mechanical failure and federal investigators sought to interview the cockpit crew.

“We’re not talking about a few knots here or there. It was significantly below the 137 knots” required for the approach, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in describing data taken from the cockpit and flight data recorders. “We do hope to interview the crew members within the next few days.”

Hersman said the cockpit recorder revealed that seven seconds before impact there was a call to increase the plane’s speed. Three seconds later a “stick shaker” — a violent vibration of the control yoke intended to be a warning to the pilot — indicated the plane was about to stall. Just 11 / 2 seconds before impact, a crew member called out to abort the landing.

Hersman said her agency was a long way — perhaps months — from reaching a conclusion on what caused the crash. But with Asiana insisting there was no mechanical failure, the data from the flight recorders showing the plane far below appropriate speed and the fact that the pilots were controlling the plane in what is called a “visual approach,” the available evidence Sunday suggested the crew was at fault.

On Monday, Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said that Lee Gang-guk, the pilot in control of the Boeing 777, had little experience flying that kind of plane. She told the Associated Press that it was the pilot’s first time landing in San Francisco and that he had nearly 10,000 hours flying other planes but only 43 hours on the 777.

Two Chinese teenagers were killed and scores of passengers were injured just before noon Saturday when the Boeing 777 airliner struck a sea wall at the end of the runway tail first and skidded about 2,000 feet before catching fire.

Authorities said the two girls were thrown from the plane onto the runway, and the Associated Press reported Sunday night that the San Francisco coroner was investigating whether one died after being run over by an emergency vehicle rushing to the plane.

At least eight passengers remained in critical condition at two hospitals Sunday, officials said. Six of them were at San Francisco General Hospital, where the chief of trauma surgery, Margaret Knudson, said that some of the 53 patients taken to the emergency room suffered minor burns or injuries caused by seat belts or from slamming into other seats. Those still in critical condition had head injuries, internal bleeding or fractured spines.

Ashley Halsey

See images from the crash in the gallery below.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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