SAN FRANCISCO/SEOUL (Reuters) – The pilot of the crashed Asiana plane at San Francisco airport was still “in training” for the Boeing 777 when he attempted to land the aircraft under supervision on Saturday, the South Korean airline said.
Lee Kang-kuk, whose anglicized name was released for the first time on Monday and differed slightly from earlier usage, was the second most junior pilot of four on board the Asiana Airlines aircraft. He had 43 hours of experience flying the long-range jet, the airline said on Monday.
The plane’s crew tried to abort the descent less than two seconds before it hit a seawall on the landing approach to the airport, bounced along the tarmac and burst into flames.
It was Lee’s first attempt to land a 777 at San Francisco airport, although he had flown there 29 times previously on other types of aircraft, said South Korean transport ministry official Choi Seung-youn. Earlier, the ministry said he had accumulated almost 10,000 flying hours, including 43 at the controls of the 777.
Two teenage Chinese girls on their way to summer camp in the United States were killed and more than 180 injured in the crash, the first fatal accident involving the Boeing 777 since it entered service in 1995.
The Asiana flight from Seoul to San Francisco, with 16 crew and 291 passengers, included several large groups of Chinese students.
Asiana said Lee Kang-kuk, in his mid 40s, was in the pilot seat during the landing. It was not clear whether the senior pilot, Lee Jung-min, who had clocked up 3,220 hours on a Boeing 777, had tried to take over to abort the landing.
“It’s a training that is common in the global aviation industry. All responsibilities lie with the instructor captain,” Yoon Young-doo, the president and CEO of the airline, told a news conference on Monday at the company headquarters.
The plane crashed after the crew tried to abort the landing with less than two seconds to go, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said on Sunday.
Information collected from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder indicated there were no signs of problems until seven seconds before impact, when the crew tried to accelerate, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told reporters at San Francisco airport.
A stall warning, in which the cockpit controls begin to shake, activated four seconds before impact, and the crew tried to abort the landing and initiate what is known as a “go around” maneuver 1.5 seconds before crashing, Hersman said.
“Air speed was significantly below the target air speed” of 137 knots, she said. The throttle was set at idle as the plane approached the airport and the engines appeared to respond normally when the crew tried to gain speed in the seconds before the crash, she said.
In a tragic twist, the San Francisco Fire Department said one of the Chinese teenagers may have been run over by an emergency vehicle as first responders reached the scene.
“One of the deceased did have injuries consistent with those of having been run over by a vehicle,” fire department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said.
The two, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, were classmates and friends from the Jiangshan Middle School in Quzhou, in the prosperous eastern coastal province of Zhejiang.
They were among a group of 30 students and five teachers from the school on their way to attend a summer camp in the United States, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Ye, 16, had an easy smile, was an active member of the student council and had a passion for biology, the Beijing News reported.
“Responsible, attentive, pretty, intelligent,” were the words written about her on a recent school report, it added.
Wang, a year older than Ye, was also known as a good student and was head of her class, the newspaper said. The last post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, simply read in English; “go”.
Twelve parents, including those of Ye and Wang, were due to leave China for San Francisco on Monday, Xinhua reported. The other students in Ye and Wang’s group who are well enough to travel will return to China as the rest of their trip has now been cancelled, the People’s Daily said on its official microblog.
More than 30 people remained hospitalized late on Sunday. Eight were listed in critical condition, including two with paralysis from spinal injuries, hospital officials said.
The charred aircraft remained on the airport tarmac as flight operations gradually returned to normal. Three of the four runways were operating by Sunday afternoon.
Hersman said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash. The data recorders corroborated witness accounts and an amateur video, shown by CNN, indicating the plane came in too low, lifted its nose in an attempt to gain altitude, and then bounced violently along the tarmac after the rear of the aircraft clipped a seawall at the approach to the runway.
In reply to a question on whether the information reviewed by the NTSB showed pilot error in the crash, Hersman told reporters:
“What I will tell you is that the NTSB conducts very thorough investigations. We will not reach a determination of probable cause in the first few days that we’re on an accident scene.”
Asiana said mechanical failure did not appear to be a factor. Hersman confirmed that a part of the airport’s instrument-landing system was offline on Saturday as part of a scheduled runway construction project, but cautioned against drawing conclusions from that.
“You do not need instruments to get into the airport,” she said, noting that the weather was good at the time of the crash and the plane had been cleared for a visual approach.
SERIOUS INTERIOR DAMAGE
The flight’s passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 64 Americans, three Indians, three Canadians, one French, one Vietnamese and one Japanese citizen.
Pictures taken by survivors showed passengers hurrying out of the wrecked plane, some on evacuation slides. Thick smoke billowed from the fuselage and TV footage showed the aircraft gutted by fire. Much of its roof was gone.
Interior damage to the plane was extreme, Hersman said on CNN earlier on Sunday.
“You can see the devastation from the outside of the aircraft, the burn-through, the damage to the external fuselage,” she said. “But what you can’t see is the damage internally. That is really striking.”
The NTSB released photos showing the wrecked interior cabin with oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling.
Hersman said the first emergency workers to arrive at the scene included 23 people in nine vehicles. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said a total of 225 first responders were involved.
“As chaotic as the site was yesterday, I think a number of miracles occurred to save many more lives,” Lee said at the airport news conference. Appearing later at San Francisco General Hospital, he declined to address whether one of the Chinese teenagers may have been run over.
It was the first fatal commercial airline accident in the United States since a regional plane operated by Colgan Air crashed in New York in 2009.
Asiana, South Korea’s junior carrier, has had two other fatal crashes in its 25-year history.