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Investigators Look At Possible Pilot Error In Asiana Crash


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Federal safety investigators in San Francisco are interviewing the pilot of Asiana flight 214, which crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. Two people were killed, and more than 180 were sent to hospitals, some with serious injuries. The Korean pilot, though experienced with other aircraft, was making his first landing of a Boeing 777 in San Francisco. NPR's Brian Naylor has the latest in the investigation.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The flight data recorder indicated the aircraft was traveling at a speed of 103 knots, 34 knots slower than what it should have been. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman said today the engines were operating at 50 percent power, and the throttles were being moved forward at the time of the crash. That could indicate the pilot at the controls was attempting to abort the landing and fly around for another attempt. Hersman says investigators have a number of questions for the crew, which included four pilots for the transpacific flight.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We want to make sure we understand what was happening, but we also want to talk to them about whether they were hand-flying the airplane, whether the autopilot was on, what kind of reliance they might have had on automation within the cockpit and how well they understood the automation and what it was supposed to do.

NAYLOR: Hersman says preliminary data show the autopilot was off. She said the two Chinese teenage girls who were killed, as well as many of the most seriously injured passengers, were seated at the rear of the aircraft, which sustained the heaviest damage in the crash. She said debris from the plane's tail section has been found in San Francisco Bay at the foot of the runway. Hersman said investigators still haven't determined whether one of the girls who died may have been run over by a rescue vehicle.

HERSMAN: There have been a lot of questions about one of the fatalities with respect to a emergency response vehicle. We are still looking at this issue. It is a very serious issue, and we want to understand it.

NAYLOR: She said investigators are reviewing airport surveillance and other tapes, but they have so far proved inconclusive. It's expected to be several months before a definitive cause of the crash is determined, but the focus is centering on why the plane came in so slowly that warning systems in the cockpit were activated. John Cox is a former commercial jet pilot who now heads Safety Operating Systems, a consulting firm.

CAPTAIN JOHN COX: Why didn't the pilot recognize that condition, and why didn't the other pilots bring it to his attention? I think those are the core issues that will probably need to be asked and those answers sought out in the near term and then, from there, see where they lead us.

NAYLOR: The Boeing 777 is regarded as a safe aircraft, relatively easy to fly. In fact, almost all passengers on commercial flights have a much better chance of surviving a crash than they did just a few decades ago. Former pilot Kevin Hiatt of the Flight Safety Foundation says one reason many passengers on Asiana flight 214 were able to walk away from the crash is due to FAA regulations. Among other things, they mandate aircraft seats have to withstand 16 G's, or 16 times the force of gravity.

KEVIN HIATT: And the way they're mounted into the floors of the cabin of the aircraft, now they're able to absorb some impact and also not break free. And so when they don't break free, that allows the passenger to stay in the seat easier and then exit out the aircraft without having too many obstructions.

NAYLOR: Plane interiors are also treated with flame-retardant materials that help prevent fires from spreading quickly, another reason why Saturday's crash could have been far worse. Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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