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Asiana crash: five clues to help understand what happened

Investigators are interviewing the flight's pilots and crew to help determine the cause of the Asiana crash at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. Here are several factors under scrutiny.

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“Lee Jeong-min has experience landing at San Francisco airport 33 times in a 777," Mr. Yoon said. "And as a trainer, while 500 hours of experience is required, he has more than 3,200 hours of experience."

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Asia Editor

Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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Multiple questions have been raised about the actions of the pilots, including why cockpit voice recordings show the two didn’t communicate until less than two seconds before the plane struck the sea wall and why the supervising pilot didn’t call for an aborted landing sooner.

Investigators are on their second day of interviewing the four pilots aboard the flight. Whether all four pilots were in the cockpit during the landing, as is normal procedure, or just the two known pilots has not yet been publicly released. 

3. An automated landing system was out of use due to airport construction.

An automated navigation system, known as Glide Path, was turned off at the San Francisco airport Saturday because of airport construction.

The landing system is meant to help planes land in bad weather, but pilots have grown increasingly reliant on it, according to Cass Howell, a former military pilot and now a human factors expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. 

"If your last dozen landings were autopilot landings and here you are faced with nothing but visual (cues) to deal with, your rust factor would be greater," Dr. Howell told the Associated Press. "Too much automation can undermine your flying skills."

Oscar S. Garcia, CEO of InterFlight Global, a consulting firm in Miami, and a former 777 pilot with a major Asian carrier, told the The New York Times that in Asia, “there is high reluctance to hand-fly the airplane.” 

But aircraft safety experts told Reuters that Glide Path is “far from essential for routine landings,” because of other systems and visual clues, and that it was common to turn off the system in good weather or during airport construction. According to a notice from the airport on the Federal Aviation Administration's website, San Francisco International Airport has turned off the system for nearly the entire summer because of construction. The notice showed the system out of service June 1-Aug. 22, Reuters reports.

4. San Francisco can be a tricky airport to navigate.

“Many pilots and safety experts consider San Francisco International Airport a particularly tricky place to land and takeoff, due to nearby peaks, closely spaced parallel runways and the area’s frequent thick fog,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

Fog was not a factor in the Asiana crash. Rather, it was an unusually clear day.

5. Engine or system failure isn’t thought to be a factor, for now.

Both engines on the Asiana Boeing 777 were operating normally when the plane crash-landed on Runway 28 Left at the San Francisco airport, the NTSB said Monday.

That statement came a day after Yoon, the Asiana president, said preliminary reports indicated there were no mechanical failures.

"For now, we acknowledge that there were no problems caused by the 777-200 plane or (its) engines," he told a media conference Sunday at the company headquarters in Seoul. 

But Hersman, the NTSB chair, refused to rule anything out on Monday.

“We are certainly looking at pilot performance, and we’re looking at communication between the two crew members,” she said. “But everything is still on the table.”

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