Flight crew interviews in Asiana crash ‘going very well,’ NTSB chair says

Posted at 11:03 AM, Jul 09, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-09 11:03:21-04

From Mike Ahlers

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) — Investigators looking into the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco plan Tuesday to interview the pilot who was at the controls when the slow-flying Boeing 777 clipped the seawall beyond the runway before slamming into the tarmac.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigators have interviewed crew members who were in the cockpit when the plane crashed, but have not yet interviewed the pilot who was at the controls at the time, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told CNN on Tuesday.

They expect to do that Tuesday, and will release information about the interviews once they are complete, she said.

She said the interviews were going “very, very well.”

In addition to two pilot interviews, NTSB investigators expect to begin interviewing flight attendants Tuesday, as well, she said.

“We’re so thankful we have crew members to interview,” she said. “They can tell us what was happening, what they know, what procedures they were following.”

On Monday, South Korean investigators said both Korean and U.S. investigators had already interviewed all four pilots aboard the plane. The reason for the discrepancy wasn’t clear.

The Saturday crash left two people dead and more than 180 injured. NTSB officials have not concluded what caused the crash, but they say the plane was traveling much more slowly than it should have been.

That airspeed — 118 knots (136 mph) as the plane was approaching the runway and as low as 103 knots (118 mph) seconds before the crash — has led some analysts to conclude pilot error was to blame for the accident. The giant jet should have been flying at 137 knots (157 mph), according to the NTSB.

Hersman said Tuesday that initial crew interviews and reviews of flight data records don’t appear to show any problems with the plane or its components before the crash.

Still, she reiterated that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the cause, echoing what she told CNN’s on Monday.

“I think it really is too early to conclude pilot error because there’s so much that we don’t know,” she said. “We have to understand what these pilots knew. We also need to look at how they were flying the airplane.”

Still, the Air Line Pilots Association criticized the NTSB for releasing what it said was an unprecedented release of information from the plane’s on-board recorders at such an early stage in the investigation.

“The release of individual data points from the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder –without the context of the entire body of factual investigative data — represents a potential detriment to flight safety,” the group said in a statement Monday.

“It encourages wild speculation, as we have already seen in the media, about causes of the accident before all the facts are known, before investigators have the ability to determine why the events occurred, and in this case before the flight crew had even been interviewed,” the group said.

Hersman disputed the ALPA’s claims on Tuesday on CNN, saying the agency believes that transparent release of information is crucial.

“We believe that it is always better to put out the correct information and factual information so that bad information is not able to propagate,” she said.

Initial findings

The flight — which originated in Shanghai, China, and stopped in Seoul, South Korea — was preparing to land Saturday in San Francisco when the rear of the plane struck the edge of the runway, severing the tail. Most of the 307 passengers on board were able to escape before the plane erupted in smoke and flames. Firefighters and police helped rescue others and transport 182 injured passengers to area hospitals.

In a briefing Monday, Hersman told reporters that the Boeing 777 was flying too slowly as it approached the runway and that on-board systems warned the crew that the plane was about to stall four seconds before the crash, she said.

Typically, such a warning would prompt a pilot to lower the plane’s nose and increase power, but the plane was too close to the ground to take such action.

One-and-a-half seconds before impact, the crew called for a “go-around,” meaning that they wanted to abort the landing and go around in the air to try to make another landing, Hersman said.

Investigators have found a path of wreckage that started at the seawall and continued to the main wreckage site hundreds of feet up the runway, Hersman said.

The pavement itself was scarred from contact with the landing gear, the engines and the fuselage, Hersman said.

The tail’s lower portion was in the rocks at the seawall and “a significant piece of the tail” was in the water, she said. Additional aircraft parts were visible at low tide. On the path that leads along the pavement away from the seawall, investigators found horizontal stabilizers, a vertical stabilizer and an upper portion of the tail cone, she said.

The air traffic control team found no evidence on voice communications of any distress calls before the accident, Hersman said.

But investigators have found that the pilots had the appropriate charts for the airport and approach in place in the cockpit, she added.

The NTSB was working to find out what the four pilots had done during the 72 hours before the crash in an attempt to determine whether fatigue or sickness may have played a role, Hersman said.

A preliminary review of FAA radar data indicates that there was “no abnormally steep descent curve that’s been detected” in the landing approach of the jet, she said, reacting to media reports citing a steeper descent.

And a preliminary review of the engines indicates that both engines were producing power when the plane crashed, she said.

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