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Crash Investigators: Did Jet Stall And Hit Sea Wall?

Jul 8, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 2:21 pm

Investigators say the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed at the San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two passengers and sending more than 180 to hospitals, may have been on the verge of stalling because it was flying too slowly.

The plane clipped the sea wall as it came in for a landing, crashing onto the runway and breaking apart.

The airline said today that the pilot of the plane was experienced but was landing a Boeing 777 for the first time at San Francisco airport.

Amateur video of crash via CNN


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And we're learning more about that deadly plane crash in San Francisco. The words "pilot error" are being thrown around as the investigation into the crash goes on. In a moment, we'll speak with a former pilot about the challenges of landing different kinds of planes at different airports.

YOUNG: But first, what's going on right now. Eight passengers from that Asiana Airlines plane remain in critical condition. Three out of four runways at the airport are now open. You've probably heard or seen the amateur video of the plane's approach. Onlookers thought it was too low, too slow, then it clipped the sea wall.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Look at that one. Look how his nose is up in the air. Oh my God. Oh, it's an accident.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you're filming it, too.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, Lord have mercy.

YOUNG: Asiana said today that the pilot, while experienced, was making his first landing of a Boeing 777 at San Francisco Airport. Onboard, by the way, the CEO of Samsung, who tweeted: Fire and rescue people all over the place, they're evacuating the injured, haven't felt this way since 9/11.

Rachael Myrow is host and reporter for the California Report on KQED, a HERE AND NOW contributor network member station. So Rachael, tell us more about the survivors. We heard dozens went to the hospital.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: We did. In fact, after the crash, more than 180 people were sent to local hospitals, some with nothing more than a few cuts and bruises but some with very serious injuries. It's expected some of the people will require multiple surgeries. The most critical injuries are things like head trauma, severe intra-abdominal bleeding. And there are people with very bad spine fractures. From what we've heard, about two people may actually be paralyzed as a result of this crash.

YOUNG: Oh, terrible, but still, are people commenting there on what a miracle it was that no more were injured or killed?

MYROW: Indeed, a lot of people are saying this was a miracle, especially since we've seen some of that amateur video now that shows exactly what it looked like as the plane was coming down, and that nose just reared up into the sky, and then of course the plane came smashing down. A lot of people credit the quick thinking of flight attendants and the willingness of passengers to help other passengers.

We have some very modern airplane seats on these 777s, they call them 16G seats. They're meant to take a lot of impact. Some of those seats came loose, but a lot of them didn't. And that's another thing that may have saved people.

YOUNG: We heard, too, that some of the inflatable devices, the exit devices, actually inflated inside the plane, maybe injuring some of the staff on the plane.

MYROW: We've heard that. We've also heard a very troubling report that is being assessed today from the San Mateo coroner's office that one of the teenage girls who died may have been killed by an emergency vehicle running over her as it approached the plane. That's something we should hope to find out later today once they complete an autopsy.

YOUNG: Terrible. But what about the actual flight? People have been saying the pilot may have been coming in for a landing at 85 knots. The targeted landing speed for this kind of plane is 137 knots. Do we know why this relatively new pilot was flying so slowly?

MYROW: It's not clear now. I mean, one of the big issues people have been talking about is the fact that the instrument landing system for this specific runway was out of service for construction. It had been since June. Other pilots, lots of other pilots, were able to handle this using visual cues, using manual training. This particular type of landing in this particular airport was new to this particular pilot.

Something to bear in mind when you're talking about San Francisco is you are traveling over water up until the very end. There's a sea wall between the water, and then there's the runway. And folks who have been analyzing the flight path sort of show that first the plane was traveling too quickly and then at the very end not quickly enough. We heard from the National Transportation Safety Board chair just yesterday that the last few seconds on that flight recorder indicate that the pilots may not have understood until the very end just how unprepared they were to land.

And it appears that they made a last-second decision, which was not made quickly enough, which kind of indicates why a lot of passengers reported that the plane appeared to be taking off just as it was landing. But of course these are things that we're going to understand better in the coming days and weeks.

YOUNG: I just want to be clear, Rachael. Are you saying, though, that it might have been because that instrument landing system on the ground, a lighting system and things like that - because it was turned off because of construction - that may have been the problem?

MYROW: It may have been a contributing factor. One of the questions it raises is whether pilots, like the rest of us, perhaps, have become too dependent upon automated systems. Things that require you to use your eyes, ears, feel, experience, that's something that has to be constantly repeated and practiced for a person to be comfortable with it.

There was a co-pilot who was there to coach and advise the guy who was at the controls. But as we heard from an Asiana spokeswoman, this particular pilot, while he had a lot of experience flying, nearly 10,000 hours flying on other planes, had spent only 43 hours flying the 777. So a lot of potential contributing factors may have played into this particular crash.

YOUNG: That's Rachael Myrow, host and reporter for the California Report on KQED in San Francisco. Rachael, thank you.

MYROW: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.