Too slow? Investigators are reportedly looking into the approach speed of the Boeing 777 that crashed on approach this weekend at San Francisco’s airport, killing two and injuring dozens. According to CNN’s sources, the jet was coming in below the minimum speed to prevent a stall as it approached the runway, and the last-moment attempt to throttle up came too late:
The Washington Post’s sources corroborate the NTSB’s direction at the moment, with on-the-record confirmation from the NTSB’s chair:
The South Korean jetliner that crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday was flying far too slowly to reach the runway and began to stall just before the pilot gunned his engines in a futile effort to abort the landing, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
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.
One possible explanation for the error is inexperience. The Los Angeles Times reports that while the captain of Asiana 214 had plenty of flight experience, he only had 43 hours in the 777 and was still in training to fly it:
The pilot flying Asiana Flight 214, which crashed in San Francisco, killing two and injuring scores more, had only 43 hours of experience flying Boeing 777 aircraft, a spokeswoman for Asiana Airlines said Sunday.
He was in training to fly the 777 when the crash occurred, she added.
Kang Kook Lee, born in 1967, was identified as the pilot of the plane that crashed.
Asiana spokeswoman Hyo Min Lee told The Times the pilot had been flying since 1994 and was a “very experienced pilot” flying other types of planes, including Boeing 747s, 737s and Airbus 320s. But “he was in training for B777,” she said.
The spokeswoman said Lee had traveled to SFO previously, but “not much” with the Boeing 777. She would not specify if Saturday’s flight was the pilot’s first to SFO in a Boeing 777.
The co-pilot had over 12,000 hours in the 777, which would suggest that he was acting as trainer to the captain on this flight. According to accounts in the Post and LAT, though, the crew didn’t react to the crisis until seven seconds before the crash, even though the throttle was “at idle.” Someone in the cockpit called out for more speed at that point and the stick began shaking to warn of a stall, but it was too late to pull out by then.
NTSB investigations take months to conclude, and they will take as much time as needed with this one. But if the chair is already talking on the record about the air speed and pilot issues, it’s probably not going to take inordinately long to reach a conclusion about the failure here.
Yesterday afternoon, CNN got video of the crash itself from across the water. It’s easy to see now why some witnesses thought the plane had flipped upside down in the crash. You may want to turn off the audio, as it doesn’t add much other than a series of ohmigods.