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NTSB to investigate delayed evacuation of Asiana flight

The latest Asiana plane crash updates: an investigation into automation, a hurried press conference with the flight crew and new regulations from the FAA

July 10, 2013|By Dan Weikel, Lee Romney and Laura J. Nelson
  • Asiana Airlines flight attendant Lee Yunju, center, who was injured in the crash, and other crew members made a brief appearance at a news conference Wednesday.
Asiana Airlines flight attendant Lee Yunju, center, who was injured in… (Aric Crabb / Bay Area News…)

SAN FRANCISCO — The evacuation of more than 300 people aboard the Asiana Airlines jetliner that crash-landed in San Francisco did not begin until 90 seconds after the aircraft came to rest and only when fire was spotted by a flight attendant, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Getting everyone out of the wide-body Boeing 777 late Saturday morning also was complicated by two escape slides that inflated in the cabin, pinning down two crew members, as the plane careened down Runway 28L.

Based on interviews with six of 12 flight attendants, Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news briefing that the pilots did not order the evacuation because they wanted to contact air traffic control after the heavily damaged jetliner came to a halt.

Part of the NTSB investigation, she said, will explore why it took so long to initiate the removal of the passengers and what caused the escape slides to inflate prematurely during the crash that killed two people and injured 182.

"We don't know what the pilots were thinking," Hersman said. "We need to know what they knew and when, what their procedures were and whether the evacuation took place in an effective manner."

Federal investigators determined that no fire reached the cabin while the passengers were inside. According to the NTSB, crew members fought the spreading blaze with extinguishers before firefighting units arrived.

Asked whether delays in evacuations occur after crashes, Hersman said that flight crews sometimes do not evacuate passengers right away. "Fire is serious," she added. "When it was seen, the evacuation was started."

During the briefing, Hersman outlined other aspects of the ongoing investigation, including a deeper analysis of the plane's automated flight systems to determine how they interacted, whether the pilots used them properly or if they malfunctioned during the landing.

Noting that the Boeing 777 has some of the most sophisticated automation in the sky, Hersman said the systems, such as the auto-throttles, have many settings and can be coupled with one another. Investigators found that in the 2 1/2 minutes before the crash, multiple auto-throttle modes and multiple auto-pilot modes had been set.

"What was the final mode the airplane was in?" Hersman asked. "We still need to validate the data. We need to make sure how the devices were set and what the pilots understood the modes to be."

Along with the automated systems, Hersman said investigators will look at the relationship of the pilots during the landing to see if there was a so-called "authority gradient" that might have affected one pilot's willingness to tell another pilot what to do or to challenge what he was doing.

The plane was flying too low and too slowly in its approach, and investigators suspect the pilots had difficulty maintaining proper air speed for landing.

The NTSB also will explore claims by the one of the pilots that he was blinded by a flash of light during the approach.

Hersman said that air traffic controllers at San Francisco International Airport did not respond to the Asiana pilots' first request to land, nor did they issue any warnings to the plane about maintaining the minimum safe altitude.

San Francisco air traffic control, she added, does not have specific rules tailored for either foreign or domestic carriers. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, the standard procedure is to require foreign carriers to land using the instrument landing system partly because of language barriers. Visual approaches — landing without navigation aids — like the one granted to the ill-fated Asiana flight are the exception, LAX air traffic controllers say.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Lee Yoon-hye, Flight 214's cabin manager, appeared at a news conference and humbly expressed grief and condolences before a bank of cameras.

"I wholeheartedly feel it was unfortunate that such an incident occurred," Lee said in Korean, striking a far more apologetic tone than in a press conference earlier in the week with Korean reporters. "I pray that everyone who was hurt by this incident will recover swiftly."

Asiana Airlines announced the news conference around midday and dozens of reporters gathered at San Francisco International in hopes of hearing crew members' accounts of the crash. Among the injured were two flight attendants who were ejected from the rear of the plane when the tail sheared off on impact.

But when the half-dozen members of the crew were escorted by police into the small aviation museum that has served as a makeshift staging area for the media, they looked pained and uncomfortable. They all appeared to be clutching their passports, some each others' arms.

After Lee — who had previously given a detailed account of her heroic efforts to save passengers and co-workers — made her brief speech, a translator said there would be no further comments.

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