Asiana Airlines crash: Details point to short landing, possible pilot error

The NTSB and other agencies have begun investigating the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco. Of the 307 passengers and crew, two were killed and 48 injured. Several dozen are unaccounted for, but many survived unhurt due to safety designs in the Boeing 777.

By , Staff writer

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    An airliner passes the wreckage of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 which crash landed at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California July 6, 2013.
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UPDATE: 9:30 pm ET Authorities now say they have accounted for all but one of the passengers on Asiana Airlines Flight 214. The crash landing killed at least two people; 181 were transported to area hospitals, 49 with serious injuries. Asiana Airlines reported that 77 of the passengers were Korean citizens, 141 Chinese citizens, 61 US citizens, and 1 Japanese citizen.

Federal investigators have begun looking for the cause of the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 while landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday.

What’s known so far points to circumstances – whether malfunction or pilot error – causing the tail of the Boeing 777 to strike the seawall at the end of the runway, then sliding several hundred yards.

There has been no official report on casualties, but reports from local first responders and hospital indicate two people killed and at least 70 injured. South Korea's Yonhap news agency in Seoul said the plane had carried 292 passengers (including 61 US citizens) and 16 crew members.

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White reported Saturday that 48 passengers had been taken to local hospitals. Another 190 had “self evacuated,” Chief Hayes-White said, some with minor injuries.

“Not everyone has been accounted for,” San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee said at the same press briefing. Chief Hayes-White put that figure at about 60, indicating that the number of fatalities could rise.

Experts interviewed on television networks remarked on the robustness of the 777 aircraft allowing so many passengers to walk away from a catastrophic crash landing – including such safety features as multiple redundant systems, stronger seats, and the use of nontoxic materials in construction.

Also, the Federal Aviation Administration now requires new aircraft models to be equipped and staffed to allow all passengers to exit within 90 seconds. Until now, there has not been a fatal accident involving the 777.

"I'm fine. Most people are totally calm and trying to help. ... the majority of passengers seem OK,” passenger David Eun tweeted after the crash.

Aerial photos of the scene show the debris field leading from the seawall at the approach end of Runway 28 Left several hundred yards to the hulk of the aircraft.

This apparently confirms eyewitness reports that the aircraft approached the runway in a nose-high, tail-low attitude. The debris field indicated touchdown occurred much earlier on the runway than is typical.

Aviation experts speculate that the tail hit first, disabling flight controls and sending the 777 sliding and spinning up the runway as parts of the aircraft (the tail and parts of the wingtips) flew off. Shortly after the crash – and shortly after most passengers apparently were able to exit via emergency slides on the left side of the aircraft – the 777 began burning, likely from its remaining fuel.

A graphic depicting the precise glide slope the jet followed to the runway was posted on the live flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. It suggested the plane had a steeper approach angle than the same flight a day earlier, USA Today reported.

Robert Herbst, a retired American Airlines 767 pilot and aviation industry consultant in South Carolina, told the Bay Area News Group that the damage he saw on television footage suggests a "no-brainer" explanation of the cause of the crash.

"This is very obvious what happened," said Mr. Herbst who flew commercial airlines for 41 years before retiring three years ago. "They landed short of the runway. They were too low for the flight path and the tail of the aircraft hit the sea wall."

The pilot of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 had not made any distress call before it crash-landed.

“For whatever reason, this appears to have caught the flight crew by surprise,” former National Transportation Safety Board senior investigator Greg Feith told MSNBC. “In a terrible situation, this appears to be as lucky as they could get.”

At a press conference in Washington several hours after the crash National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said NTSB teams on their way to San Francisco will investigate several areas: flight operations, human performance, survival factors, airport operations, and aircraft systems including airframe structure and engines.

Was pilot error a possible factor, Ms. Hersman was asked?

“It’s too early to tell,” she said. “We have determined what the focus of this investigation will be, but everything is on the table.”

Boeing, the FAA, Asiana Airlines, and other agencies and organizations will be involved in the investigation as well.

Officials (including the FBI) said there is no indication that terrorism was a factor. Weather does not seem to have been a factor either. Winds were clocked at 5-10 miles per hour, temperatures were in the mid-60s and skies were partly cloudy. Because of the good weather, all flights were landing visually, according to airport officials.

Asiana is a South Korean airline, second in size to national carrier Korean Air. The 777-200 is a long-range plane. The twin-engine aircraft is one of the world's most popular long-distance planes, often used for flights of 12 hours or more, from one continent to another.

San Francisco Airport closed for several hours after the crash before airport officials reopened two runways.

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