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Asiana captain worried about landing plane visually: NTSB

Dec. 11, 2013, Washington, D.C. - The pilot whose Boeing 777 crashed last summer at the San Francisco airport told investigators he was "very concerned" about attempting a visual approach without the runway's instrument landing aids, which were out of service because of construction, according to an investigative report released Wednesday.


December 11, 2013
By The Associated Press

Lee Kang Kuk, a 46-year-old pilot who was landing the big jet for his
first time at San Francisco, "stated it was very difficult to perform a
visual approach with a heavy airplane." The jet crash-landed after
approaching too low and slow in an accident that killed three people and
injured more than 200, according to the National Transportation Safety
Board.

 

A visual approach involves lining the jet
up for landing by looking through the windshield, as well as using
numerous other cues.

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The investigative report was released at
the start of a daylong NTSB hearing. The hearing was called to answer
lingering questions about the crash, not to conclude exactly what went
wrong.

Though Lee was an experienced pilot with
the Korea-based airline, he was a trainee captain in the 777, with less
than 45 hours in the jet. He had not piloted an airliner into San
Francisco since 2004, according to NTSB investigator Bill English.

 

Lee told investigators that he realized
others had been safely landing at San Francisco without the glide-slope
indicator, an array of antennas that transmits a signal into the cockpit
to guide the descent. That system was out of service while the runway
was expanded. It has since been restored.

 

In his interview with investigators, the
trainee said "everyone else had been doing the visual approach, so he
could not say he could not do the visual approach."

 

Lee also conceded that he
was worried about his unfamiliarity with the 777's autoflight system.

 

He
admitted he had not studied the systems well enough and thought that
the plane's autothrottle was supposed to prevent the jet from flying
below minimum speed as it drew near the runway.

 

But two other Asiana pilots who took an
instruction class with Lee said that they were told that the throttle
hold did not automatically re-engage under certain autopilot modes.

 

When asked if he was concerned about his ability to perform the visual approach, Lee said "very concerned, yeah."

 

"This pilot should never have taken off,"
said attorney Ilyas Akbari, whose firm represents 14 of the passengers.
"The fact that the pilot was stressed and nervous is a testament to the
inadequate training he received, and those responsible for his training
and for certifying his competency bear some of the culpability for the
tragedy of this crash."

 

Lee told investigators that as he
realized his approach was off, he was worried he might "fail his flight
and would be embarrassed."

 

Another Asiana pilot who recently flew
with Lee told investigators that he was not sure if the trainee captain
was making normal progress and that he did not perform well during a
trip two days before the accident. That captain described Lee as "not
well organized or prepared," according to the investigative report.

 

Asiana's chief pilot told investigators that the airline recommended to pilots that they use as much automation "as possible."

 

He also said that the
airline told its pilots to turn off the 777's autopilots below 1,000
feet when making visual approaches to airports. But a former Asiana
pilot told the board that Asiana pilots were rarely allowed to practice
visual approaches on landing and that many trainee pilots "did not feel
confident and did not want to make any mistakes."

 

An NTSB review of Asiana's 777 landings
found that nearly 78 per cent were done manually, while 17 per cent were
handled by autoflight systems.

 

The agency did not say whether Asiana's reliance on automatic landings was greater than the industry norm.

 

Recordings from the cockpit show Lee took
over the controls as the autopilot disconnected when the plane was
about 1,500 feet above San Francisco Bay and closing in fast on the
airport.

 

Lee insisted in interviews that he had
been blinded during a critical instant before the botched landing by a
piercing light from outside the aircraft. NTSB investigators repeatedly
probed him about the light, but he was unable to pinpoint its origin or
how it precisely affected him.

 

An instructor pilot said he never saw a bright light outside the aircraft.

 

According to a transcript of the Asiana
plane's cockpit voice recorder, the crew did not comment on the jet's
low approach until it reached 200 feet above the ground.

 

"It's low," an unnamed crewman said at 11:27 a.m.

 

In an instant, the plane began to shake.

 

At 20 feet, another crewman broke in: "Go around," he said. But It was too late.

 

NTSB investigators also raised concerns
about a safety certification issue involving the design of Boeing 777's
controls, warning that the plane's protection against stalling does not
always automatically engage.

 

When the plane's autothrottle is placed
in a "hold" mode, as it was during the Asiana flight, it is supposed to
re-engage or "wake up" when the plane slows to its minimum airspeed.

 

But a primary project pilot who oversaw
the Boeing 787 flight tests for the Federal Aviation Administration told
the NTSB that both the 787 and the 777 have the same anti-stall
protection systems — and that the wake-up system did not always work
when tested at minimum speeds.

 

Boeing's retired 777 chief pilot, John Cashman, underscored that auto controls are not designed to replace pilots.

 

"The pilot is the final authority for the operation of the airplane," he said.