SAN FRANCISCO – Investigators trying to understand why Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed focused Monday on the actions of an experienced pilot learning his way around a new aircraft, fellow pilots who were supposed to be monitoring him and why no one noticed that the plane was coming in too slow.
Investigators have said Flight 214 was flying “significantly below” its target speed during approach when the crew tried to abort the landing just before the plane smashed onto the runway. Authorities do not know yet whether the pilot’s inexperience with the Boeing 777 and landing it at San Francisco’s airport played a role.
The airline acknowledged Monday in Seoul that the pilot at the controls had flown that type of plane for only a short time and had never before landed one at that airport.
Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said pilot Lee Gang-guk had logged nearly 10,000 hours operating other planes but had only 43 hours in the 777, a plane she said he was still getting used to.
It’s not unusual for veteran pilots to learn about new aircraft by flying with more experienced colleagues. Another pilot on the flight, Lee Jeong-min, had 12,390 hours of flying experience, including 3,220 hours on the 777, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in South Korea.
A key question raised by the NTSB’s account is why two experienced pilots – the pilot flying the plane and another supervising pilot in the other seat – apparently didn’t notice the plane’s airspeed problem.
Part of the answer to that question may lie in whether the pilot flying, after switching off the autopilot, still had the plane’s autothrottle engaged during the descent.
Aviation safety experts have long warned that an overreliance on automation is contributing to an erosion of pilots’ stick-and-rudder flying skills. It’s too soon to say whether that was the case in the Asiana crash, but it’s something NTSB investigators will be exploring, they said.
More than 180 people aboard the plane went to hospitals with injuries. But remarkably, 305 of 307 passengers and crew survived, and more than a third didn’t even require hospitalization. Only a small number were badly hurt.