The lead pilot of the Asiana Airlines jet that crash-landed in San Francisco was serving as a flight instructor for the first time. He was overseeing the pilot who was flying the aircraft, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the two pilots also had never flown together before the crash that left two teenagers dead.
The NTSB has interviewed three of the four pilots, Hersman said. The training pilot told investigators he noticed the plane was too low just prior to the crash.
Audio recordings show pilots didn’t try to correct the plane’s speed and elevation until seconds before hitting the seawall at the end of the runway, a calamitous impact that sent the fuselage bouncing and skidding across the airfield.
But veteran airline pilot and aviation expert Patrick Smith said in an interview with KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don Show it’s far too soon to blame anyone.
“Earliest theories about why a plane crashed almost always turn out to be wrong or incomplete,” said Smith, author of the recently released book “Cockpit Confidential”, “But it doesn’t look too good at this juncture for the crew as far as potential pilot error goes.”
Pilot Lee Hang-kook was at the controls, making his first landing of a Boeing 777 at the San Francisco airport. But Smith pointed out the pilot had thousands of hours flying other large aircraft, including the Boeing 747.
“We transition from aircraft type to aircraft type all the time and specific experience in a given model isn’t the same as the overall experience that we have,” he said.
Smith also downplayed the fact part of the airport’s automated landing system was not working, forcing the pilot to make a visual landing.
“It’s actually very common at big and busy airports,” he said. “Maybe that plays some very small role, but by itself, it doesn’t explain why a plane crashes short of the runway.”
A big question investigators are trying to answer is what was happening in the cockpit just before the crash landing. All four pilots were in the cockpit, and any one of them could and should have spoken up if they saw anything wrong.
“All would have been in a position to call out any deviations, to make note of the fact that something was going wrong and to correct for it, and if need be to, initiate a missed approach in time. And that didn’t happen and we don’t understand why,” Smith said.
There’s some speculation the junior pilots might have been unwilling to say or do anything because of an authoritarian cockpit culture that makes newer pilots reluctant to challenge captions. That was considered one of the causes of a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 crash in Guam in 1997.
Since then, the industry has adopted broad training and requirements for crew resource management, a communications system or philosophy airline pilots are taught in part so that pilots not at the controls feel free to voice any safety concerns or correct any unsafe behavior, even if it means challenging a more senior pilot or saying something that might give offense.
If any of the Asiana pilots “saw something out of parameters for a safe landing,” they were obligated to speak up, said Cass Howell, an associate dean at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“There are dozens and dozens of accidents that were preventable had someone been able to speak up when they should have, but they were reluctant to do so for any number of reasons, including looking stupid or offending the captain,” said Howell, a former Marine Corps pilot.
“This was not an aviation catastrophe, the likes of which we used to see really all the time.”
Ultimately, Smith is confident a cause will be determined quickly. And he argued the real story is how few people died and that rather than a crash, it was a crash landing – which he said is an important distinction.
“(It) really underscores just how safe commercial aviation has become because we don’t see those sorts of [catastrophic] crashes nearly at the rate we used to.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report