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Pilot of plane that crashed was in training, Asiana says

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The pilot flying Asiana Flight 214, which crashed in San Francisco, killing two and injuring scores more, had only 43 hours of experience flying Boeing 777 aircraft, a spokeswoman for Asiana Airlines said Sunday.

He was in training to fly the 777 when the crash occurred, she added.

Kang Kook Lee, born in 1967, was identified as the pilot of the plane that crashed.

Asiana spokeswoman Hyo Min Lee told The Times the pilot had been flying since 1994 and was a “very experienced pilot” flying other types of planes, including Boeing 747s, 737s and Airbus 320s. But “he was in training for B777,” she said.

The spokeswoman said Lee had traveled to SFO previously, but “not much” with the Boeing 777. She would not specify if Saturday’s flight was the pilot’s first to SFO in a Boeing 777.

The spokeswoman identified the co-pilot as Jung Min Lee, born in 1964.

“He has more experience,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the co-pilot had logged more than 12,000 hours of flying. “He had lots of experience with the B777,” she said.

The revelation comes as officials try to determine why the plane crashed. Federal investigators said the plane came into the airport far too low and hit a sea wall dividing San Francisco airport from San Francisco Bay.

Asked about pilot error at a Sunday news conference, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, stressed that the investigation would probably take more than a year and that “everything is on the table right now. It is too early to rule anything out.”

Hersman said Asiana Flight 214 made no distress calls and appeared to be operating smoothly moments before it slowed to a near-stall, crashed into a sea wall near the runway and broke apart.

“There is no discussion of any aircraft anomalies or concern with the approach,” Hersman said.

Then, at seven seconds prior to impact, a call is heard from one crew member “to increase speed,” Hersman said. At four seconds before impact, the sound of the "stick shaker" – which noisily vibrates to warn pilots of an impending stall – can be heard, she said. Then, one and a half seconds before impact, the cockpit crew sought to initiate a “go-around,” hoping to power back up and circle back to the runway.

The cockpit voice recorder offered two clear hours of good quality and indicated that the Boeing 777 was cleared for visual approach to the 2-mile runway 28L. The flaps were configured at 30 degrees and the landing gear was down. Target speed was 137 knots and the approach “proceeds normally as they descend,” Hersman said.

But then Hersman said that during the approach, “the data indicate that the throttles were at idle and airspeed was slowed below the target airspeed.”

“The speed was significantly below 137 knots,” she said. When questioned further, Hersman said, "we’re not talking about a few knots,” but she declined to give exact speeds.

The engines appeared to be working properly. Throttles were advanced “a few seconds prior to impact and the engines appear to respond normally,” she said.

Hersman confirmed that part of the so-called glide path system that assists pilots with instrument based landings had been out of commission since June 1. The glide slope – which “can give you a constant approach to the airport on an approach down” has been sidelined until Aug. 22 because of runway construction, and all pilots had been notified.

Another part of that system – known as a localizer – that lines up an aircraft horizontally around the runway’s center line, was working correctly, a test flight revealed, she said. So were precision approach indicator lights, which were then “significantly damaged” during the crash.

Hersman said the aircraft may have also had GPS-based technology that offers vertical guidance to pilots.

The unavailability of the glide scope is part of the investigation, as is a detailed look at all the technologies the aircraft had deployed, Hersman said. But she stressed that “this was a visual approach.”

The skies were clear and wind was blowing at 7 knots, with a visibility of 10 miles.  “What a visual approach means is that you can fly it visually,” she said. “You do not need instruments. It was a clear day. They were cleared for a visual approach.”

Handling of the aircraft “appeared routine until the controller noticed that the aircraft hit the sea wall,” she said.

The aircraft’s engine is manufactured by Pratt & Whitney. About 168 other Boeing 777s use the same model of engine.

Hersman offered a glimpse at the far-reaching scope of the investigation and said crews should be on scene for at least a week. Korean airline safety investigators as well as Asiana’s own investigators arrived Sunday and have joined the team, and FBI evidence response and hazardous materials teams are also assisting.

The investigation includes an operations group, which will evaluate the airport geography, the cockpit instruments, seats, windshields, flight plans, training and experience of the crew, whom investigators hope to interview “in the next few days.”

A site survey will locate the “four corners of the wreckage” and search for key parts. Investigators are also probing the seating positions of those killed and injured, deployment of the chutes, and use of seat belts and child safety seats. They will soon interview survivors.

A separate “human performance investigator” will perform drug and alcohol testing, and probe fatigue,  medication use, sleep disorders and what Hersman called “crew resource management -- how they work together and communicate.”

Speaking at a news conference in Seoul earlier Sunday, Yoon Young-doo, Asiana's president, described the pilots involved as "skilled" and said it could take time to determine what went wrong.

The twin-engine 777 is one of the world's most widely used long-distance aircraft, often used for flights of at least a dozen hours.

By Saturday night, all 307 on board the Asiana flight had been accounted for, authorities said. A total of 182 people had been transported to hospitals, including 49 in serious condition. Among the passengers were 77 Korean citizens, 141 Chinese, 61 Americans and one Japanese, according to South Korea-based Asiana.

The two passengers who died were 16-year-old students from China. Asiana Flight 214 originated in Shanghai and stopped in Seoul before flying to San Francisco.

The bodies of the teens were found on the runway, said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. One appears to have been ejected from the plane when it hit the sea wall and began to fall apart, San Mateo County Coroner Robert J. Foucrault said. The other was found where the wreckage came to rest, near an escape chute.

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Twitter: @MattStevensLAT

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