SAN FRANCISCO -- Federal investigators are scrutinizing the actions -- and inactions -- of the pilots of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 during the final 34 seconds of the more than 10-hour flight that crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport.
The experience and training of the pilot, who was making his maiden landing in a Boeing 777 at SFO, and his trainer, who was reportedly supervising his first flight, will most likely be a critical part of the investigation, which is being conducted by the NTSB, FBI and Korean transportation officials.
"We know there are a lot of questions about the pilots," Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters Monday at a hotel news conference near SFO. "I know everybody wants all of the information right away."
Hersman said investigators will examine how well the flight crew understood automation on the Boeing 777. Outside experts told this newspaper that based on details revealed by the NTSB, the crew may not have used a key landing system.
Investigators Monday planned to interview the two pilots who were at the controls of the Boeing 777 when its tail slammed into the sea wall that abuts SFO's Runway 28L on Saturday morning, sending the plane careening down the runway before it burst into flames.
Pilot Lee Kang-kuk was attempting his first landing at SFO in a Boeing 777. He had 43 hours of experience flying a plane that pilots call "The Triple 7," and reportedly had more than 10,000 hours flying another large plane, the Boeing 747.
There was also a senior pilot on the flight, Lee Jung-min, who had just received his training certificate in June, Asiana Airlines officials told reporters Monday, allowing him to supervise other pilots in training.
Investigators Monday also planned to interview two other pilots who were on board, which is typical for a crew making the long, overnight trans-Pacific flight from Seoul to San Francisco, Hersman said. It is not clear where those pilots were sitting when the crash occurred. An analysis by this newspaper of Federal Aviation Administration data about incidents at SFO shows that no commercial planes have landed short at any of the airport's four runways in 40 years. In 1968, a Japan Airlines pilot landed his Douglas DC-8 airliner in heavy fog into San Francisco Bay, short of the runway. No one was killed or injured.
Of the 307 people on the Asiana flight, 182 were taken to hospitals by rescue workers. Two 16-year-old girls died, and authorities are investigating whether one of them was run over by an emergency vehicle responding to the crash, subsequent fire and mass casualty evacuation.
Data from the plane already has told NTSB investigators that the pilots had their flaps set at 30 degrees, and their landing gear was down. But 34 seconds before impact the plane's speed was beginning to fall below the landing "target speed" of 137 knots, or just more than 157 mph. And the plane continued to lose speed.
Seven seconds before the crash, internal cockpit communications captured on a voice recorder indicated that one of the crew members called for an increase in speed, Hersman said. At four seconds before impact, the pilots' "stick shaker" controls began to sound and vibrate, telling the crew that they were about to stall, Hersman said.
Three seconds before the collision, the speed of the 777 had fallen to 103 knots, or just more than 118 mph.
Then, just 1.5 seconds before impact, the cockpit's voice recorder showed investigators that "they want to abort the landing and they want to go around in the air and try to make a landing again," Hersman said.
Aviation experts told this newspaper that the timeline outlined by Hersman indicates the pilot may have turned off a system that automatically controls the airplane's thrust -- called "auto thrust" or "auto throttle" -- that would have maintained the plane's target landing speed without the pilot having to do anything more.
With the auto thrust off, the engines would have been idling, they said.
When a crew member called for more speed, it was far too late to recover.
It takes 5 to 7 seconds or more for the massive Pratt & Whitney engines to power up from the idle mode, experts said.
"If it's what we think it was, he literally put himself in a position where he ran out of airspeed, altitude and ideas all at the same time," said JF Joseph of Joseph Aviation Consulting in Austin, Texas.
The fact that the airplane was flying too slowly "makes me think that he expected the auto thrust to kick on but it never did," Joseph said.
Douglas M. Moss, of AeroPacific Consulting in Los Angeles, said the pilot might have stopped monitoring the airspeed as he got closer to landing.
"It's a judgment call," he said. "It's a gut feeling based upon experience on when do you disregard airspeed and put the throttle back to idle."
Staff writer Thomas Peele contributed to this report. Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
The NTSB said Monday:
The plane's "tail cone" that snapped off in the crash remained in the water of San Francisco Bay on Monday, along with other pieces of wreckage that are exposed at low tide.
Chunks of the sea wall were sent flying hundreds of feet down the runway during the crash.
Investigators have identified cockpit switch positions and located pilot flight bags and flight and airport charts, and are reviewing training manuals.
They are also reviewing pilot training, work-rest histories and any incidents of pilot fatigue, illness, medication and health issues, and activities leading up to the crash.
The crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI and the NTSB's Korean counterpart, the Korea Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board, with technical support from airplane manufacturer Boeing, engine maker Pratt & Whitney and Asiana Airlines.