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Probe Continues for ‘Inexplicable’ SFO Plane Crash; Third Casualty Confirmed

July 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How did two experienced pilots, flying on a clear day, end up crashing Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport? Hari Sreenivasan updates the investigation efforts and gets more detail and reaction from Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been nearly a week since a jetliner crash-landed at San Francisco’s International Airport. The initial phase of the investigation is wrapping up on the ground. But the week has also brought new questions about the pilot and the crew, the training, and what may help explain what caused the accident.

We go back to Hari, who has our update.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Piece by piece, workers last night began the careful process of removing the wreckage of Asiana Flight 214. Cranes lifted large sections of the Boeing 77, including one of the engines and part of the fuselage.

Pieces of the broken plane will be sent to the National Transportation Safety Board’s offices in Washington for further investigation. The rest will be housed in a San Francisco hangar for now.

Chief Deborah Hersman said yesterday that a final report is most likely a year away.

DEBORAH HERSMAN, chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board: We want to make sure that we complete this investigation as expeditiously as possible. And so I will tell you it’s going to be a high priority for our agency. And we look at getting close to or under that 12-month mark.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: From the outset, it’s been clear the plane was flying too low and too slow. But it’s still unclear why. Investigators found no problems with the plane’s engines, computers or automated systems. They say the South Korean pilot was landing a 777 at the San Francisco Airport for the first time, although he had thousands of hours of experience on other planes.

The cockpit voice recorder shows two crew members called out to abort the landing seconds before impact, but the landing gear and tail clipped a seawall and the plane smashed to earth. In the meantime, there was new information today on one of the two Chinese teenagers who were killed. San Francisco police confirmed she was hit by a fire truck racing to the scene.

A spokesman said the girl was on the ground and covered in foam used by fire crews. It is just one of the indications of the chaos after the crash.

On 911 calls released yesterday frantic passengers are heard begging for help.

WOMAN: We just got in a plane crash. And there are a bunch of people who still need help, and there’s not enough medics out here — that need help. There is a woman out here on the street, on the runway who is pretty much burned very severely on the head, and we don’t know what to do.

We have been on the ground, I don’t know, 20 minutes, a half-hour. There are people laying on the tarmac with critical injuries, head injuries. And we’re almost losing a woman here. We’re trying to keep her alive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ultimately, members of the flight crew got most of the passengers off the plane with only a handful of serious injuries.

Yesterday, six of the flight attendants on board returned home to South Korea. They dismissed the label of heroes.

KIM JI-YEON, flight attendant (through translator): I feel even ashamed to hear that. I think I just did what I was expected to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Back at San Francisco International, engineers will continue to remove the remains of the plane through the weekend. Airport officials hope to reopen the runway by late Sunday.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have learned late in the afternoon today that doctors at San Francisco General Hospital say a third child has been pronounced dead from the crash.

We turn now to Andy Pasztor, aviation safety reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has been following the Asiana investigation.

Thanks for being with us.

ANDY PASZTOR, The Wall Street Journal: My pleasure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, first of all, explain to us. This is — we have seen this time and time again about the fact that the computers worked as they were supposed to work.

How is that possible that the flight and the plane was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, and the pilots don’t recognize that they’re too low and too slow until almost six seconds before impact?

ANDY PASZTOR: After many accidents, the word that usually comes up, even weeks or months later, is inexplicable.

And in this case, as your report showed pretty well, the inexplicable part isn’t what happened. Investigators have pretty well determined what happened to this plane.

But it’s inexplicable how two experienced pilots on a beautiful day flying a visual approach with no apparent problems from air traffic control or from the plane managed to get so low and so slow that they slammed basically 1,000 feet in front of the runway.

And I think that is a major question that people are going to have to ponder. The other inexplicable part of this investigation, as far as I can see, is, after the crash, the pilots waited a full 90 seconds to even open a single door on this aircraft.

So you had the surreal scene of a plane with its tail severed, its engines missing, presumably dozens of seriously injured passengers moaning and groaning in the cockpit, and the pilots are telling the flight attendants to have the passenger goes sit in their seats while they talk to the tower to determine what to do.

For many airline aviation safety experts, that is truly an inexplicable scene.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I mean, this seems like sort of a cultural problem, not between Americans and Koreans, but really about the relationship with the flight attendants and the pilots and their behavior and what their expectations were in these kinds of situations.

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, I think that’s partly true.

And if many of your viewers are frequent travelers, and if they can imagine an aircraft in that condition being told by the flight attendants to sit in their seats, I think you would have many people refusing to obey.

And, now, to look at it from a little bit different perspective, to evacuate a big plane like that, to deploy the slides and have people go down the slides, you can have dozens of serious injuries.

And you don’t want to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary. But from the safety experts I have talked to, they simply cannot explain why the doors weren’t opened even just to look for the emergency crews and to get a sense of what was happening around the plane.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, let’s talk a little bit about this specific type of aircraft. The 777, there’s been a lot made about the fact that the pilot didn’t have any training coming into this particular airport on this type of aircraft.

How different is the cockpit inside here vs. the 10,000 hours that they might have flown elsewhere?

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, I think it’s significantly different. The pilot who was flying this aircraft was flying an Airbus A-320, which is a much smaller aircraft and has many different systems.

The most important difference, I think, that investigators are looking at has to do with the auto-throttle system, basically the automated system that controls the speed, the plane’s speed and engine thrust.

And because the Boeing plane has a much different system, he wouldn’t have had any cues, perhaps, from the throttles, the actual levers moving back and forth, as they should in a Boeing aircraft.

He was expecting them not to move because he was flying an Airbus. He used to fly an Airbus craft. And he may have gotten confused, perhaps, in exactly what the engines were doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So are there not bells and whistles that sort of go off and say you’re too low and too slow?

ANDY PASZTOR: No, there definitely are various warning systems already on this plane.

And even beyond that, as the investigators have made clear, one of the basic things that pilots learn when they start flying even small propeller planes is, when you are on landing, when you’re on approach to a strip, you watch your speed.

And in interviews with investigators, these pilots basically acknowledge that they thought the automation was taking care of the speed, and they didn’t monitor it as carefully as they should have. And no now investigators are looking to see whether they properly engaged the automation or inadvertently may have disconnected it during the flight.

It seems at this point that the National Transportation Safety Board believes preliminarily that there was nothing wrong with the automation system itself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, briefly — this might be a philosophical question, but are pilots losing their edge or perhaps relying too much on the technology?

ANDY PASZTOR: I think that’s been an issue for years. It’s increasing in importance. I believe that many experts will tell you that yes, they are. And there’s some efforts being made to have pilots fly more by hand, manually, to do more things without automation.

But I think the important thing to remember really in this case, this is not an automation problem. This is a simple attentiveness problem. And that’s what the board and the investigators are really trying to understand. How could these experienced pilots not do the basic, minimum airmanship tasks flying into San Francisco?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Andy Pasztor from The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

ANDY PASZTOR: My pleasure.