SAN FRANCISCO – The Asiana Airlines jet that crashed at San Francisco airport was travelling much slower than recommended, US investigators said Sunday, as the carrier confirmed that the pilot was being trained to fly the type of aircraft involved.
The flight data recorder showed that as the Boeing 777 approached the runway its pilots were warned that the aircraft was likely to stall and asked to abort the landing.
Seconds later, the plane struck the ground, bursting into flames, killing two people and injuring 182.
Chinese state media identified the two dead passengers as Ye Mengyuan, 16, and Wang Linjia, 17, high school classmates from eastern China’s Zhejiang province.
One of the girls may have been run over by an airport fire engine rushing to the scene, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White told reporters. White did not identify the victim.
“As it possibly could have happened, based on the injuries sustained, it could have been one of our vehicles that added to the injuries, or another vehicle,” Hayes-White told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That could have been something that happened in the chaos. It will be part of our investigation,” she said.
The girl did not appear to have suffered extensive burns, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told the newspaper, though the other girl appeared to have died from injuries suffered as she was hurled out of the plane when its tail broke off in the crash.
The two friends were coming to visit Stanford University, just south of San Francisco, and to attend a summer camp at a local Christian school, the Chronicle reported.
The request to abort the landing was captured on the cockpit voice recorder 1.5 seconds before the plane crashed, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who is leading the probe, said Sunday.
The plane was landing at a speed well below the recommended 137 knots, Hersman said.
“We are not talking about a few knots here or there. We’re talking about a significant amount of speed below 137,” she said.
Her announcement came minutes after a video obtained by CNN confirmed that the aircraft, carrying more than 300 people, clipped a seawall short of the airport and skidded on its belly onto the runway.
The footage showed the plane with its nose up and its rear hitting the ground. The plane then hit the tarmac, abruptly bounced upward, and spun around 180 degrees. The plane’s tail section was torn off and separated in the crash.
The findings came as Asiana said pilot Lee Kang-Kuk, 46, had 43 hours of experience in piloting the 777 and was still undergoing training, although he had more than 9,000 hours of flight time under his belt.
“It’s true that Lee was on transition training for the Boeing 777,” an Asiana spokeswoman told AFP on Monday. However, he was accompanied by an experienced trainer, who acted as co-pilot.
Choi Jeong-Ho, the head of South Korea’s transportation ministry’s aviation policy bureau, was defensive when he spoke to reporters about the pilot.
“We cannot conclude the accident was caused by a pilot mistake. Whether there was a pilot mistake can be confirmed after all related data are analyzed and inspected,” Choi said.
On Sunday, Yoon Young-Doo, the CEO of Asiana Airlines, based in Seoul, said “currently we understand that there are no engine or mechanical problems” with the plane, which was bought in 2006.
NTSB chair Hersman refused to comment on whether the flight crew was at fault, stressing that the investigation had just begun.
The plane’s low speed triggered an automatic device called a “stick shaker” which warns pilots that a plane is about to stall, Hersman said. The warning came four seconds before the crash — 2.5 seconds before one of the pilots tried to abort the landing.
Hersman said: “There was a call out for a go-around from one of the crew at 1.5 seconds prior to impact (which is a) communication between the crew that they want to go around, that means they want to not land but apply power and go around and try to land again.”
Analysts said the pilot’s request came far too late.
Asiana Flight 214 originated in Shanghai, and had 307 people on board — 291 passengers and 16 crew — after it stopped to pick up passengers in Seoul.
Several of the injured were still in critical condition or unconscious, the San Francisco General Hospital said.
Doctors saw “a huge amount of spine fracture, some of which include paralysis,” Margaret Knudson, interim surgery chief at the hospital, told reporters.
The passengers included 141 Chinese nationals, 77 South Koreans and 64 Americans.
In total, 123 people aboard the flight escaped unharmed, US officials said.
The accident sent shares in Asiana tumbling as much as 6.4 percent on Monday, with analysts warning that the disaster could have a long-term negative impact on the firm.
The twin-engine Boeing 777 is one of the world’s most popular long-distance planes, often used for flights of 12 hours or more.
It was the first fatal crash involving an Asiana passenger plane since June 1993, when a Boeing 737 operated by the carrier crashed into a mountain in South Korea, killing 68.
According to aviation safety databases, the two dead girls are the Boeing 777’s first fatalities in the plane’s 18 year of service.