The pilot of the Asiana plane that crashed at San Francisco International Airport was still in training for the Boeing 777 when he attempted to land the aircraft under supervision on Saturday, the South Korean airline has admitted.
Lee Kang-kuk, in his 40s, was the second most junior pilot of four on board the Asiana Airlines plane. He had 43 hours’ experience flying the long-range jet, the airline said yesterday. He is said to have almost 10,000 flying hours in total.
The crew tried to abort the descent less than two seconds before the plane hit a seawall on the approach to the airport, bounced along the tarmac and burst into flames.
It was Mr 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.
Two teenage Chinese girls on their way to a summer camp in the United States were killed and more than 180 people were injured in the crash, the first fatal accident involving a Boeing 777 since the plane type entered service in 1995.
The Asiana flight from Seoul to San Francisco, with 16 crew and 291 passengers on board, included several large groups of Chinese students.
Asiana said Lee Kang-kuk 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 Boeing 777s – had tried to take over to abort the landing.
Yoon Young-doo, president and chief executive of the airline, said: “It’s a training that is common in the global aviation industry. All responsibilities lie with the instructor captain.”
The plane crashed after the crew tried to abort the landing with less than two seconds to go, the US National Transportation Safety Board said.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said 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.
A stall warning activated four seconds before impact, and the crew tried to abort the landing and initiate what is known as a “go around” manoeuvre 1.5 seconds before crashing, she said.
She said the plane was “well below” the target air speed of 137 knots (157 mph).
The plane’s Pratt & Whitney engines were on idle and the pilots were flying under visual flight rules, Ms Hersman said.
Under visual flight procedures in the Boeing 777, the autopilot would typically have been turned off while the automatic throttle, which regulates speed, would have been on until the plane had descended to 500ft. Pilots would then normally check their airspeed before switching off the autothrottle to continue a “hand fly” approach.
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 dead girls, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, were 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 US, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Ms Ye, 16, had “an easy smile”, was an active member of the student council and had a passion for biology, the Beijing News reported. It said her recent school report said she was “responsible, attentive, pretty, intelligent”.
Ms Wang, 17, was also known as a good student and was head of her class, the newspaper said. Her last post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, simply read in English: “Go.”
More than 30 people remain in hospital following the crash. Eight were in critical condition, including two with spinal injuries, hospital officials said.
The charred aircraft remained on the airport tarmac yesterday as flight operations gradually returned to normal.
The flight’s passengers included 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 64 Americans, three Indians, three Canadians, one French, one Vietnamese and one Japanese citizen.