Norman Onishi, Christopher Drew, Matthew L. Wald and Sarah Maslinnir NEW YORK TIMES
Terror on Jet: Seeing Water, Not Runway
July 7, 2013
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  • SAN FRANCISCO — The nearly 11-hour trip across the Pacific had gone smoothly as Asiana Flight 214 approached San Francisco International Airport — an uneventful flight for the 291 passengers, including dozens of Chinese teenagers who were arriving for a summer camp to study English and tour colleges.

    But from seat 30K, Benjamin Levy knew something was wrong. Outside his window, as the plane approached the airport where Mr. Levy, a frequent traveler, knew there should have been tarmac, there was instead a terrifying sight: the waters of San Francisco Bay.

    “The pilot put the gas full steam, and we tipped back up — he went full throttle to regain a bit of altitude,” Mr. Levy said from his home on Sunday, a day after he survived the crash landing that killed two 16-year-old girls among the group of Chinese students and injured 180 of the passengers arriving from South Korea.

    “We were so close to the water, the water got sprayed up,” Mr. Levy said. “There were walls of water beside the window — before we started hitting earth.”

    When the screaming ceased inside the Boeing 777, the plane rested on its belly, its tail and engines sheared by the crash.

    The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that the pilots came in too slowly, took too long to realize it and tried to abort the landing seconds before the crash. The South Korean Transport Ministry said the pilot, Lee Kang-guk, had only 43 hours of experience flying a 777. It was Mr. Lee’s first time piloting a 777 into the San Francisco airport, an Asiana spokeswoman said. “For now, this itself should not be cited as if it were the cause of the accident,” said Chang Man-hee, a senior aviation policy official at the transport ministry. “Mr. Lee himself was a veteran pilot going through what every pilot has to when switching to a new type of plane.”

    In a dramatic moment-by-moment account, the N.T.S.B.’s chairwoman, Deborah A. P. Hersman, suggested that crew members had little inkling of the impending crash until about seven seconds before impact, when one is heard on a cockpit recorder calling for an increase in speed. The call came too late. Three seconds later, an alarm sounded a warning that the plane was about to stall, Ms. Hersman said. One-and-a-half seconds before impact, the pilots advanced the throttles to get more power in an attempt to avert a crash. But before the plane could gain altitude, it hit the sea wall, snapping off its tail section before skidding to a stop and catching fire.

    Ms. Hersman’s comments, delivered at a news briefing, were based on preliminary data provided by the Boeing 777’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. Other data from a private firm, FlightAware, indicated that as the plane lost forward speed, it descended much faster than normal.

    Ms. Hersman emphasized that investigators could not yet draw any conclusions about the cause of the crash. But she did not indicate any sign of a mechanical malfunction and focused almost exclusively on the actions of the pilots as they prepared for landing.

    “Everything is on the table right now,” she said. “It is too early to rule anything out.”

    Saturday was clear, with light winds, no wind shear and visibility of up to 10 miles, Ms. Hersman said. Air traffic controllers had cleared the Asiana flight for a visual approach — meaning no guiding instruments were needed to land the plane.

    What happened to the passengers depended in part on where they were sitting.

    Near the front of the plane, including the first-class cabin, some passengers fled clutching their carry-on luggage. In the center of the plane where Mr. Levy sat there was no inflatable chute, as there were at other exits. At the very rear of the plane, which bore the worst of the damage, overhead compartments opened upon impact, raining luggage onto the seated passengers. Mr. Levy said there was a woman with her leg crushed between two seats, which had become uprooted. Mr. Levy and others worked to free her.

    Another woman near her was initially unconscious. “She wouldn’t move,” Mr. Levy said. “There were two other guys. We couldn’t pick her up.”

    Suddenly, through the hole in the tail of the plane, a firefighter charged in, rushing Mr. Levy and the remaining passengers out as smoke billowed. The jetliner was on fire.

    On Sunday, hospital officials said that nearly all of the most grievously injured passengers had been in the rear of the plane, including six people in critical condition with spinal injuries, paralysis and head injuries, and a few with what was described as “road rash” as if they had been dragged.

    It was not clear where the two girls who died were seated on the plane; both bodies were found on the tarmac. One of the bodies, found on the ground to the left side of the plane, may have been run over by a fire truck or another emergency vehicle in addition to her injuries from the crash, Robert J. Foucrault, the San Mateo County coroner, said on Sunday.

    Mr. Foucrault said his examination was not complete, so he could not confirm that was the case.
    Jang Hyung Lee, 32, was seated with his wife and their 15-month-old son in the first row of economy class. He said he heard a distant thump, then a few seconds later, a louder thump, and then saw an engine on fire to the right.

    He said he was lucky to be sitting toward the front of the aircraft. Doors opened. He lined up to slide down the chute, clutching his baby in a carrier on his chest. His wife grabbed the diaper bag.

    The evacuation, at least in the front of the plane where the Lee family sat, was calm and orderly.

    “It wasn’t really chaos; people actually took their hand carriers,” Mr. Lee said. “People in front, they were pretty much O.K. We could walk out by ourselves.”

    His in-laws in business class said luggage fell from the overhead compartments. His mother- in-law somehow knocked out a front tooth and his father-in-law is suffering from back pain, he said, but they both made it safely down another chute to waiting paramedics.

    Xu Da, the production manager at Taobao, the Chinese shopping Web site, wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese blogging site, that he smelled “the smoke, and saw the flames.”

    Nevertheless, like many other passengers, he wrote that he grabbed his carry-on bags before leaving the plane.

    “I grabbed my bags as soon as it stopped,” he said of the plane. “My wife was very calm — she even picked up the scattered stuff on the ground,” he wrote, adding that the couple took their child and bags as they turned toward the rear. “There was a huge hole, quite round, so we rushed out there.”

    Strapped into his exit row midway in the plane, Mr. Levy thought his ribs had been broken. Nonetheless, he stood up inside the shattered aircraft, pried open the emergency door and began to shout out directions.

    “We were left on our own, there was no message from the pilot, from the crew, there was no one. We had to help each other out,” Mr. Levy said, describing how he and others stayed in the plane as they hustled other passengers out, shouting for people to keep calm, while 30 to 40 people exited the door beside him.

    The flight had a crew of 16, including four pilots who switched off during the flight in two-man rotations. Korean officials said the main pilot at the time of the landing was Lee Jeong-min, who had more than 12,000 hours of overall flight experience and 3,220 hours in Boeing 777s. The pilot at the controls, Lee Kang-guk, 46, had almost 10,000 total flying hours, with just 43 of them in 777s, Korean officials said.

    Ms. Hersman said that an electronic system called a glide slope indicator, which keeps planes at the proper descent angle, had been turned off, but that the crew should have known this, and that other tools were available to the pilots.

    “Pilots have available to them a number of options for how to get the plane in on the right speed, on the right approach, on the right path,” Ms. Hersman said.

    Another tool, known as a localizer, which allows planes to line up along the center of the runway, was operating, as were the airport’s red and white lights that visually guide pilots to the runway.

    Pilots can also use onboard GPS-based equipment to guide their approach to the runway.

    Airlines had been told that the glide slope system was out of service, and many carriers, including Asiana, had been landing for weeks on that runway without difficulty, the official said. Air traffic control tapes indicate that the controller cleared the plane for a visual approach, for which the system was not necessary.

    Some experts said that pilots often have little opportunity to practice landings without the aid of such technology, particularly on international flights into large, technologically advanced airports like San Francisco International.

    Still, given that the weather was ideal and the guide lights were on, making a visual landing should not have been difficult for most commercial pilots, aviation experts said.

    “Even if it was the least experienced crew in Asiana Airlines, the maneuver that led to this crash, on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, this was a 2 or 3 at the most,” said Oscar S. Garcia, the chairman of InterFlight Global Corporation, a consulting firm.

    Norimitsu Onishi reported from San Francisco, Christopher Drew and Sarah Maslin Nir from New York, and Matthew L. Wald from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Somini Sengupta from San Francisco; Michael Schwirtz, Ravi Somaiya, Jad Mouawad and Mei-Yu Liu from New York; David Barboza from Shanghai; and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea. Jack Begg contributed research.