Asiana Airlines jet tried to abort landing, NTSB says
SAN FRANCISCO — Pilots of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 were flying too slowly as they approached the San Francisco airport, triggering a control board warning that the jetliner could stall, and they tried to abort the landing seconds before crashing, according to federal safety officials.
Investigators also said they were looking into the possibility that rescue crews ran over one of two teenagers killed in the crash on Saturday. Officials released the details without explaining why the pilots were flying so slow — or why rescue officials did not see the girl.
The Boeing 777 was traveling at speeds well below the target landing speed of 137 knots per hour, or 158 mph, said National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman at a briefing Sunday on the crash.
“We're not talking about a few knots,” she said.
Hersman said the aircraft's stick shaker — a piece of safety equipment that warns pilots of an impending stall — went off moments before the crash. The normal response to a stall warning is to increase speed to recover control.
There was an increase several seconds before the crash, she said, basing her comments on an evaluation of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders that contain hundreds of different types of information on what happened to the plane.
And at 1.5 seconds before impact, there was a call for an aborted landing, she said.
The new details helped shed light on the final moments of the airliner as the crew tried desperately to climb back into the sky, and confirmed what survivors and other witnesses said they saw: a slow-moving airliner.
Pilots normally try to land at the target speed, in this case 137 knots, plus an additional five knots, said Bob Coffman, an American Airlines captain who has flown 777s. He said the briefing raises an important question: “Why was the plane going so slow?”
The plane's Pratt & Whitney engines were on idle, Hersman said. The normal procedure in the Boeing 777, a wide-body jet, would be to use the autopilot and the throttle to provide power to the engine all the way through to landing, Coffman said.
There was no indication in the discussions between the pilots and the air traffic controllers that there were problems with the aircraft.
Among the questions investigators are trying to answer was what, if any, role the deactivation of a ground-based landing guidance system played in the crash. Such systems help pilots land, especially at airports such as San Francisco where fog can make landing challenging.
In total, 305 of the 307 people aboard made it out alive in what survivors and rescuers describe as nothing less than astonishing after a frightful scene of flames inside the fuselage, pieces of the aircraft scattered across the runway and people fleeing for their lives.
The flight originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped over in Seoul before making the nearly 11-hour trip to San Francisco. The South Korea-based airline said four South Korean pilots were on board, three of whom were described as “skilled.”
Among the travelers were citizens of China, South Korea, the United States, Canada, India, Japan, Vietnam and France. There were at least 70 Chinese students and teachers heading to summer camps, according to Chinese authorities.
As the plane approached the runway under clear skies — a luxury at an airport and city known for intense fog — people in nearby communities could see the aircraft was flying low and swaying erratically from side to side.
On audio recordings from the air traffic tower, controllers told all pilots in other planes to stay put after the crash.
“All runways are closed. Airport is closed. San Francisco tower,” said one controller.
At one point, the pilot of a United Airlines plane radioed.
“We see people ... that need immediate attention,” the pilot said. “They are alive and walking around.”
“Think you said people are just walking outside the airplane right now?” the controller replied.
“Yes,” answered the pilot of United Flight 885. “Some people, it looks like, are struggling.”
At the wreckage, police officers were throwing utility knives up to crew members inside the burning wreckage so they could cut away passengers' seat belts. Passengers jumped down emergency slides, escaping from billowing smoke that rose high above the bay.
Nearby, people who escaped were dousing themselves with water from the bay, possibly to cool burn injuries, authorities said.
By the time the flames were out, much of the top of the fuselage had burned away. The tail section's interior was gone, with pieces of it scattered across the beginning of the runway. One engine was gone, and the other was no longer on the wing.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said senior San Francisco Fire Department officials notified him and his staff at the crash site on Saturday that one of the 16-year-olds might have been struck on the runway.
Foucrault said an autopsy he expects to be completed by Monday will involve determining whether the girl's death was caused by injuries suffered in the crash or “a secondary incident.”
He said he did not get a close enough look at the victims on Saturday to know whether they had external injuries.
Foucrault said one of the bodies was found on the tarmac near where the plane's tail broke off when it slammed into the runway. The other was found on the left side of the plane about 30 feet from where the jetliner came to rest after it skidded down the runway.