Asiana Airlines pilots say auto-throttle didn’t maintain landing speed

Asiana Flight 214 crash in San FranciscoLATimes – by Dan Weikel, Ralph Vartabedian and Laura J. Nelson

SAN FRANCISCO — The pilots flying the Asiana Airlines jetliner that crashed in San Francisco told federal investigators that an automatic throttle — a system akin to a car’s cruise control — had failed to keep the jetliner at the proper speed for landing.

The Asiana pilots said in interviews with the National Transportation Safety Board that they had set the auto-throttles to maintain an air speed of 137 knots. That’s a significantly faster speed than the plane actually achieved as it came in for its landing at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday.  

As the inquiry entered its fourth day, Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were still trying to verify whether the throttles were properly activated.

The pilots’ statements do not resolve the central question of why the Boeing 777’s speed and altitude fell so far out of the normal range for landing at SFO before it hit a sea wall and crash-landed. But outside air safety experts said the statements suggest a risky reliance on technology when the flight crew should have been constantly monitoring the airplane’s speed.

“Whether it was engaged or not working is almost irrelevant,” said Barry Schiff, a former TWA pilot and an air safety consultant. “The big mystery of Flight 214 is why in God’s name did these two pilots sit there and allow the air speed to get so low.”

Experts said the pilots should have been monitoring the plane’s speed every few seconds, and could have manually taken control of the engines at any time.

Auto-throttles, which are connected to an airplane’s flight management computers, allow pilots to select the appropriate speed for takeoff, cruising or landing. The devices automatically make corrections if there are deviations from the setting.

Jon Russell, a veteran airline pilot and safety official for the Air Line Pilots Assn. on the West Coast, said the auto-throttle is a valuable tool.

“I don’t know what happened. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Russell, noting that the pilots were very experienced in Boeing aircraft. “The situation deteriorated a lot farther than it should have.”

Much of the information released by the NTSB since Saturday morning’s crash has focused on the pilots, who were flying too low and slow during their final approach. Two people were killed and 182 were injured as the plane’s landing gear and tail struck a seawall at the end of Runway 28L.

Investigators said the plane was flying 30 knots under its target landing speed of 137 knots, or almost 158 mph, and had dipped well below the normal flight path into the airport.

Several seconds before the crash landing, a stall warning went off in the cockpit. With the impact 1.5 seconds away, the pilots finally attempted to accelerate and abort the landing, investigators said.

The Asiana pilots were making a visual approach to San Francisco without the instrument landing system, a part of which was not operating due to airfield renovations. NTSB officials said, however, that there were other automated systems and visual references available to assist the flight crew.

At the time, the pilot, Lee Kang-kook, who had only 35 hours flying Boeing 777s, was being checked out and supervised in the plane by Lee Jung-min, a captain who had been certified as a training pilot June 15, less than a month before the crash. It was Lee Kang-kook’s first landing in San Francisco in a Boeing 777 and Lee Jung-min’s first landing at the airport in a training situation.

Hersman said that when the jetliner crashed, three pilots were in the cockpit. Lee Kang-kook was in the left-hand or captain’s seat. Lee Jung-min was in the right-hand or co-pilot’s seat, supervising his flight, and a relief first officer was sitting in the jump seat to monitor the landing.

The approach to San Francisco International Airport is not particularly difficult, but it does require closely monitoring a jetliner’s air speed as it executes a sweeping 180-degree counterclockwise turn in the approach from the north, according to Robert Ditchey, former vice president for operations at US Airways.

Ditchey said that only the pilot in the left-hand seat — in this case, one who was not yet fully qualified to land the 777 — could see the runway during the turn. The supervising pilot in the right-hand seat could not see the runway from his position, he said.

Aviation safety experts and federal investigators have questioned why the crew did not recognize the problem and take action before the plane struck the end of the runway.

Hersman rejected the suggestion that any problem or misunderstanding about the auto-throttle by the crew would excuse the pilots from their duty to manually fly the airplane.

“But let me be clear: the crew is required to maintain a safe aircraft, which means that they need to monitor. They have a monitoring function, all three of them in the cockpit. One of the very critical things that need to be monitored on approach to landing is speed,” she said.

None of the crew was tested for drugs or alcohol after the crash, Hersman said, because foreign flight crews involved in accidents do not fall under the same regulatory requirements as U.S. crews.

Hersman also said that two flight attendants in the rear of the aircraft were ejected after the impact and found on the side of the runway with injuries.

During a news briefing in Seoul on Tuesday, Asiana President Yoon Young-doo defended the pilots, saying they were “excellent” and qualified members of the flight crew with experience flying into San Francisco International.

Lee Kang-kook, who has almost 10,000 hours in the air, had previously flown into San Francisco 29 times as a co-pilot on Boeing 747s, Yoon said. Lee Jung-min, with almost 12,000 hours, had flown into the airport 33 times.

Yoon said he personally apologized to the families of the two Chinese girls who were killed in the crash. He said he planned to visit the crash site and meet with survivors and their families in San Francisco to apologize. He added that would assist the investigation in any way he could.

Weikel and Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles; Nelson reported from San Francisco. Times staff writers Victoria Kim and Kate Mather contributed to this report.,0,1241740.story

18 thoughts on “Asiana Airlines pilots say auto-throttle didn’t maintain landing speed

  1. That’s BS..Auto throttle wasn’t even engaged. Too low and too slow. Pilot error is written all over this one. The video proves this. 25-30 kts too slow at the rotation point, and they still tried to rotate.

    Another point is that the pilots got the “stick shaker” before touch down proving there was a stall in progress. They were too slow all the way down the approach.

    You can read more about other airline pilots input here at airliners .net . Some of the comment are from high time pilots who know what the hell they are talking about. Many are from pencil necks who are wanna bees, so you have to be careful which comments you are reading.


  2. Um…forgive my ignorance, but shouldn’t there be some black box recording being reviewed and released as well here or am I missing something? Do we not even look at those anymore or has it gone mysteriously missing as well?

    1. Yeah, two of them. They have already said that the auto throttle wasn’t even engaged, but this is only a minor deal. It’s the pilots responsibility to keep the speed up. All he had to do was push the goddamn throttles forward. When he finally did it was too late, the engines didn’t have enough time to spool up. He should have done this 30 miles earlier just as he entered the glide path as he entered too slow. You have to enter at the correct speed or your going to get your undies in a bunch quick. I learned that on my first day of pilot training 40 years ago. I’m a multi engine, commercially rated, instrument pilot.

      Here is an e-mail from a 747 pilot who was at the end of the runway while this was happening. Interesting read, proving again, pilot error.

      Low on glide path and low on speed……Ooooops….

  3. Common sense would dictate that they test their gadgets on an empty plane, but then they would have to pay for the gas rather than having the passengers pick up the bill.

    As for the passengers themselves, they got what they deserved for not boycotting the airlines, and if I’m not mistaken, most of them were chinks anyway, so I’m glad they’re dead. We need to discourage them from coming here unless we can get them to battle the Mexicans for us.

    1. That’s got to be the sickest response I have ever heard. You think that just because you were born a different color that it makes you better than anyone else. Take your sick worthless comments somewhere else you bigot. Yea like you had a choice on where you were going to be born. Get a clue.

  4. “None of the crew was tested for drugs or alcohol after the crash”. Probably because they don’t exist. If they could fly a plane into the Twin Towers without any passengers, they could do the same here. 307 passengers and crew on board and not a single one of them took a picture of the evacuation? Tourists without cameras or phones? I only see a group of about 20 “passengers” sitting beyond the plane – all perfectly clean and without ash or a hair out of place. They look bored, not terrorized. Sooo much wrong this incident.

    1. Makes sense to me old vet. Also, lets not forget there were “4” pilots aboard this plane. Because the flight was so long they needed a back up crew to relieve the others while in flight. All 4 pilots apparently screwed this up, or? remote manipulation?…. I wouldn’t put it past the trillionaires bag of tricks. Nothing is what it seems anymore.

      1. Mark,..yup! Nothing is as it seems to be these days.

        All we have to go by in current events is what a Lie’n MSM tells us the story is…..
        Shoot man,..I question each and everything I see or hear these days

    2. Great find, oldvet. I like much of what I’ve read by Jim Stone in the past. He makes some excellent points on this one. In fact, I like it so much I’m sending it in to Henry to see if he’ll post it. Thanks.

      1. I have followed Jim for a while now…..yes it seems at times he can be out there in his opinions….but remember this…..the guy was a Govt. dude under Carter and Reagan and is total American and ashamed of what we have become now. His format may seem off-beat but hey?! I’d trust him over Micheal Rivero or Jeff Rense,..Henry Mackow AJ,..Beck or any of the rest ..why?…he is/was the real deal…….the rest of that list are just media whores.

        Does not mean I would bet my life on what he says!!….understand…..!

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