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SB urges caution on apportioning blame in Asiana crash

SB urges caution on apportioning blame in Asiana crash
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - 8:33am

(CNN) -- The chief of the National Transportation Safety Board cautioned Wednesday against jumping to any conclusion about what may have caused the crash on Saturday of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport.

"At this point in the investigation, we are not reaching any conclusions," Deborah Hersman told CNN on Wednesday. "We're gathering factual information. We know a lot, and what we need to do is correlate all that information. We need to put it together and see what it tells us."

Hersman cited "great cooperation" from the pilots of the Boeing 777 in interviews carried out Tuesday and Monday with investigators.

Asked about the failure of investigators to take blood samples from any of the four pilots -- all of whom are Korean -- to check for possible drug or alcohol use, she said investigators were checking to see what the requirements are for foreign carriers operating in the United States.

Such tests would be required within a few hours of any crash involving a U.S. pilot in the United States, she said.

But, she added, "I don't have any reason to believe that anything is being withheld." She noted that the pilots stayed at the airport "for many hours after the accident."

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, called the lack of blood testing a failure by investigators.

"Whenever anyone enters this country, unless they have diplomatic immunity, you are subject to the laws of the United States," Schiavo said Wednesday on CNN's "New Day." "I think they should have asked, and frankly demanded, that they be drug an alcohol tested."

South Korea may change training rules

South Korea has started a sweeping inspection of eight airlines and may reconsider its rules about training flights, its aviation authority said Wednesday.

"Because the plane that crashed was an Asiana Airlines aircraft, there is a special inspection on eight Korean airlines," said Choi Jeong-ho, head of South Korea's Aviation Policy Bureau. He did not say what officials are looking for.

"After the inspection, we will go through various specialists' reviews and come up with a comprehensive measure with regards to air safety," he said. "In that process, we will also discuss rules regarding training flights, if needed. However, this does not imply that we see a problem with our current rules."

The pilot at the controls of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 had nearly 10,000 hours of flight experience, but he was in his company's training phase to fly a Boeing 777, said Hersman. With him was a first-time pilot instructor.

Hersman said the pilot flying the 777 had flown 10 legs and had about 35 hours of air time with the jet, which put him about halfway through Asiana's training requirement of 20 legs and 60 flight hours when the crash landing occurred.

Landing gear struck seawall

She offered new details Tuesday about the sequence of events in the crash.

The plane's main landing gear struck the seawall off the edge of the San Francisco runway, Hersman said. "Sections of the cabin ... are found very early in the debris field," said the NTSB chief. "You can see aircraft parts, gallery materials, newspapers, magazines and flooring."

Three of the four pilots were in the cockpit during the final descent, the fourth was in the cabin.

Questions about auto throttle

The three in the cockpit told investigators that the auto pilot was off but the auto throttle -- a device that regulates speed -- was on and set to 137 knots (157 mph), which is the speed the plane should have been going, Hersman said.

But the instructor pilot said that, at an altitude of 200 feet, he noted that precision approach path indicator lights indicated the giant jet was too low, Hersman said.

And seconds before the crash, the plane had slowed dangerously to 103 knots, she said.

"He recognized that the auto throttles were not maintaining speed, and he established a go-around attitude," she said, referring to an attempt to abort the landing, circle aloft and try it again. "He went to push the throttles forward, but he stated that the other pilot had already (done so)."

She said investigators were looking into how the auto throttles were working and whether they were used.

Ejected flight attendants

When the plane departed Seoul, it was carrying 307 passengers and crew. Two 16-year-old girls from China, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, died after the crash.

The instructor pilot, a South Korean Air Force veteran with 13,000 hours of flight experience, recalled Flight 214 as having been "slightly high when they passed 4,000 feet (and) they set vertical speed mode at about 1,500 feet per minute," Hersman said.

But they ended up coming in low. The third pilot in the cockpit told investigators that the nose pitched up, and "he could not see the runway," the NTSB head said.

In the last few hundred feet before touchdown, the crew was making both lateral and vertical adjustments -- meaning it was moving the plane to the left or the right and adjusting its height.

When the aircraft hit, it spun 360 degrees. An oil tank ruptured and leaked fuel onto the plane's right engine, igniting a fire.

Another 182 were injured -- including two flight attendants in the rear of the plane who were ejected as the aircraft broke up and found to the side of the runway.

Neither the flying pilot nor the instructor pilot was hurt.

Asiana hired the flying pilot in 1994. He has experience piloting 737, 747 and A-320 aircraft.

Under criticism

The Air Line Pilots Association criticized what it called the "NTSB's release of incomplete, out-of-context information" that "has fueled rampant speculation about the cause of the accident."

"Without the full body of facts surrounding a catastrophic event, partial or incomplete information can lead to erroneous conclusions and, in turn, skew the perception of individuals' behavior," the pilots union said in its Tuesday statement. "This could then lead to misguided assessments of the crew's intentions and actions."

But Hersman defended her agency's disclosures.

"One of the hallmarks of the NTSB is our transparency," she said. "There are a lot of organizations and groups that have advocates. We are the advocate for the traveling public. We believe it is important to show our work and to tell people what we are doing."

The NTSB is not expected issue decision on probable cause for months.

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