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NTSB urges caution on dispensing blame in Asiana crash

CNN News Wire | 7/10/2013, 11:55 a.m.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The chief of the National Transportation Safety Board cautioned on Wednesday against jumping to any conclusion ...
Investigator in charge Bill English & Chairman Hersman discuss progress of the Asiana 214 investigation on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. NTSB

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 automatically regulates speed — was on and set to 137 knots (157 mph), which was the recommended speed for approaching the runway, Hersman said.

But the instructor pilot said he noted at an altitude of 200 feet that lights on either side of the runway that help pilots precisely align aircraft for landing indicated the jet was too low, Hersman said.

The plane slowed dangerously to 103 knots seconds before the crash, 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.

When the flight 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.

The weather was clear and the crew was landing the plane visually.

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 Tuesday. “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.

CNN’s Jinjoo Lee, Seohee Sohn, Miguel Marquez, Chelsea Carter and Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

Tom Watkins and Holly Yan | CNN