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Asiana pilot says landing was ‘very stressful’ before crash

WASHINGTON — The trainee captain flying the Asiana Airlines flight that slowed dangerously and crashed in San Francisco in July told investigators the approach to the landing was “very stressful” and he mistakenly thought an automatic throttle was controlling the plane’s air speed.

Lee Kang Kuk, 46, who was landing a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport for the first time, also told National Transportation Safety Board officials that manually bringing the airliner down onto the runway was difficult because an airport guidance system for pilots was out of service.

Despite flying with an instructor and having experience in other aircraft, Lee said he was “very concerned” about his ability to land the 300-passenger plane manually, without the landing aid known as a glide slope indicator, according to an NTSB report released Wednesday. Other pilots in the cockpit told investigators Lee appeared nervous during the descent.

The release of the 45-page report came at a daylong Washington hearing on the crash, which has raised broad questions about the adequacy of pilot training and the deterioration of skill in an era of growing reliance on computer-controlled flight. The report and expert testimony offered the most detailed account yet of what was happening in the cockpit just before the disaster that left three passengers dead and 180 injured.

Arriving from Seoul, Asiana Flight 214 struck a sea wall and slammed onto the runway, severing its tail section and scattering wreckage across the airfield before the body of the plane erupted in flames.

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Investigators initially concluded that the pilots failed to maintain the minimum speed and altitude required for a safe landing, but a decision on the official cause of the crash hasn’t been made by the safety agency.

With testimony from 20 witnesses, the hearing focused intensely on the impact of automated flight systems on pilot performance, as well as the training of Asiana pilots, safety of the passenger cabin and the emergency response to the scene.

Among other things, investigators reported that Asiana pilots had little opportunity to practice manual landings, except in simulators, and were highly resistant to making those type of airport approaches without automated systems, especially in the Boeing 777.

Lee told investigators that prior to the crash he lacked confidence about operating the Boeing 777’s automated flight systems and needed more study, the report stated. He also said he was most concerned about controlling the descent and lateral movement of the aircraft, the report stated.

Asiana officials said Wednesday the airline’s pilots are well qualified to make landings with or without computerized aids.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A. P. Hersman said the inquiry could lead to new recommendations for pilot training and aircraft design. “When we have accidents, we have to learn from them,” she said during a news conference.

Lee told investigators that manually landing at San Francisco was “very stressful” because other pilots at the airline had done it, and he could not admit having doubts about his abilities. Lee also said he was relying on an automatic engine throttle to control the speed during the approach, but investigators found the device had been set to a mode that no longer controlled airspeed, the report said.

As a result, the landing speed dropped to 118 miles per hour, far below the required 158 mph, prompting a warning to sound in the cockpit, the report stated. The instructor, Lee Jung Min, told investigators he then advanced the throttles and ordered the pilot trainee to abort the landing.

The aircraft’s nose pitched up, but it continued to sink toward the runway, triggering a stall warning in the controls. Two to three seconds later, the report said, the aft fuselage struck the sea wall.

Representatives of the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing Co., told NTSB board members that responsibility for safely landing an airliner ultimately rests with pilots, not automated systems.

Automation is a tool “to aid the pilot, not replace the pilot,” said John Cashman, a former Boeing 777 chief pilot. Bob Myers, the firm’s chief engineer of flight deck engineering, said even with high-tech aids to control an aircraft, pilots need to actively monitor critical information during final approaches. “And there’s no more critical flight parameters than glide path and airspeed,” Myers testified.

NTSB investigator Bill English told the board that no “anomalies” with the airplane or its equipment were found, although testing and performance evaluations are continuing.

According to the NTSB report, a former Boeing 777 captain at Asiana said he found it extremely difficult to get pilots to land manually without automated systems. They did not feel comfortable, he told investigators, or thought that they did not have enough experience in the large aircraft.

An instructor for the airline said that pilots performed manual approaches well in simulators without a glide slope indicator, but the pilots avoided them in actual flights due to lack of confidence and fear of making mistakes. One co-pilot told investigators he was instructed by captains to make instrument landings and never attempted a manual landing while carrying passengers. Another said he has seen an Asiana captain make less than five manual landings over a three-year period.

Asiana representatives defended their flight training programs and told board members that Boeing 777 pilots were experienced and qualified to make landings without automated assistance. Captain Sung-kil Lee, Asiana’s chief Boeing 777 pilot, said Lee was a veteran pilot with the ability to manually land airliners. Lee joined the airline in 1994 and logged nearly 9,700 hours flying time, but only 33 hours in Boeing 777s.

In other testimony, Nadine Sarter, an automation expert at the University of Michigan, said instrument landing systems and other navigation aides can be a big help to pilots if properly designed. But if there is too much automation in a complicated environment, such as a cockpit, it can lead to mistakes.

Said Hersman: “We do have an issue in aviation that needs to be dealt with, with respect to automation and performance when it comes to the interaction between the aircraft and a human being.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com


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