Asiana crash probe: South Korea not happy with NTSB disclosures

Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, addresses a news conference on the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

SEOUL -- As a team of U.S. and South Korean investigators wrap up the initial stage of their probe into the crash landing of an Asiana Airlines jetliner in San Francisco, a cultural chasm is growing concerning disclosures about the pilots and analysis of their actions in the cockpit.

National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman has cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying the investigation will take months to complete. But an NTSB briefing on Thursday seemed to offer more clues that the South Korean pilots may have made some misjudgments in the moments before the Boeing 777 slammed into a sea wall and runway at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two people and injuring 182 others.

Herman said analysis of the cockpit voice recorder indicated that until only shortly before impact, the pilots were unaware that the jet was flying far below the target speed and altitude for a safe landing. She added that there was no malfunction of the autopilot, auto-throttle or flight director systems.

South Korean officials are not happy with the NTSB’s presentation of that information, or its disclosure that the pilots ordered the passengers to remain seated for 90 seconds after the plane came to a halt, until the cabin crew noticed a fire.


South Korea’s Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry has said it is worried about the NTSB’s quick release of the information, and questioned whether the disclosures are fair and being properly vetted.

On Thursday, at a news briefing, the head of the ministry’s aviation bureau, Choi Jeong-ho, raised questions about the role of the San Francisco airport’s control tower, noting that controllers gave no warning to the jet before the crash.

Also questioning a report that the pilots were not in their proper seats, Choi said the pilots sat according to what is customary. The ministry asserted that there was no “delay” in the evacuation of the plane, given the situation, and that it was effectively carried out by the cabin crew.

South Korean media outlets have also voiced their dissatisfaction with U.S. investigators, accusing the NTSB of picking and choosing selected information to release.

The U.S. media’s look into whether South Korea’s hierarchical culture may have contributed to a communication problem between the pilots has triggered heated online debate here as well.

“It is too early in the investigation to blame South Korean culture, before even the black box data analysis has come out,” one person posted on the Web.

News outlets including CNN, CNBC, the Washington Post and The Times have looked into past crashes of South Korean jets and explored whether the country’s strictly hierarchical corporate culture inhibited a trainee pilot from questioning his trainer.

“It’s true that captains acted in an authoritarian way in the cockpit in the past, but that’s almost nonexistent now,” South Korea’s top daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, quoted an unidentified airline captain as saying Thursday. “It’s unimaginable for a captain to ignore the first officer in an emergency.”


South Korea has expressed deep regret over the incident. President Park Geun-hye has sent condolence letters to President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, while Asiana has taken out advertisements in the Chinese media extending its apologies.

The NTSB report that will officially determine the cause of the crash is expected in about a year.


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Choi is a special correspondent.