Pilots’ memories of crash differ on details

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Pilots’ memories of crash differ on details


The pilots of Asiana Flight 214 are not on the same page in their recollections of what happened in its final moments before crashing, the JoongAng Ilbo has learned in San Francisco.

They vary widely as to the exact time when the pilot attempted a “go-around,” or aborting of the fatal landing, and one pilot’s warnings about the plane descending too steeply may have been ignored.

It’s also possible that the plane’s auto-throttle, an automatic system that guides a plane to the appropriate speed during landings, didn’t operate normally.

Investigators from Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) separately interviewed the two pairs of pilots onboard the plane in San Francisco. The pairs worked in shifts.

When the plane crashed, it was being flown by Captain Lee Gang-guk, 45, and Lee Jeong-min, 48, who acted as first officer although he has the rank of a captain. It was Lee Gang-guk’s first landing of a Boeing 777 into San Francisco and Lee Jeong-min was also his instructor.

The first officer from the first half of the flight, Bong Dong-won, 41, was sitting in the cockpit behind the two Lees. The captain from the first part of the flight, Lee Jong-joo, 52, was in the first-class cabin.

First officer Lee Jeong-min told the NTSB, which in charge of the investigation of the July 6 crash, that they attempted to abort the landing when the plane was between 200 and 100 feet above the ground.

“Because the aircraft’s altitude and speed kept decreasing, we manually tried to boost the jetliner’s thrust to lift off, but it didn’t work,” Lee was quoted as saying in the questioning.

“It means that the pilots tried to increase the aircraft’s altitude between 16 and seven seconds prior to impact,” a spokesman of the Transport Ministry said.

But according to officials from the Transport Ministry sent to interview the pilots, Lee Gang-guk, captain of the flight, recalls the plane being much closer to the ground. “The attempt [of a go-around] was made at 110 feet,” he said.

That altitude was about eight seconds before the crash.

On Monday U.S. time, the NTSB said, “The pilots attempted to abort the landing between seven and three seconds before the crash and notified a ‘go-around’ to the airport traffic control (ATC) about 1.5 seconds before the crash,” according to the flight data recorder (FDR), or black box.

The ministry also said the two pilots said they turned off the auto-pilot system, which guides a plane without assistance from pilots, at 1,500 feet. The FDR showed they turned it off at 1,600 feet above the ground.

“Their memories might had been influenced from the crash, which could hurt them mentally and physically,” a spokesman of the Transport Ministry said. “We are trying to clarify when the pilots exactly attempted to lift the aircraft.”

The possibility that the pilots weren’t listening to each other in the cockpit was raised when the ministry spoke with Bong Dong-won, who was sitting behind the two Lees.

“I yelled at the pilots to check the plane’s sink rate as it was descending too steeply though it was already under 1,000 feet, but they didn’t respond,” Bong was quoted as saying by the ministry.

The ministry said the plane was at 1,000 feet 54 seconds before impact.

“That means there is a possibility that the pilots might had recognized that the circumstances related to the landing were wrong much earlier than it has been known,” the ministry said.

Media in China and the U.S. are speculating that Korea’s hierarchical social structure could be a contributing factor to why Bong, junior in rank to the two Lees landing the plane, may have been ignored.

In his 2008 bestseller “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that Korea’s cultural sensibilities may have contributed to the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 into a hill while landing in Guam in 1997, killing 223. Gladwell wrote that the co-pilot of the flight was scared to question the captain’s judgment.

The ministry is also looking into whether the plane’s auto-throttle system operated normally. Pilot Lee Jeong-min testified, “We tried to operate the auto-throttle to boost the aircraft’s thrust, but it didn’t work.”

BY LEE JIE-SANG, KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]
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