Asiana pilot worried about ability to land
STEPHEN BRAUN AND MARTHA MENDOZA
A teenage girl who survived the crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco only to be fatally struck by a fire truck on the runway was actually run over by two rescue vehicles in the accident's chaotic aftermath.
Authorities in California confirmed months ago that 16-year-old Chinese student Ye Meng Yuan was alive on the runway and covered in firefighting foam when she was hit by an emergency vehicle at San Francisco International Airport and suffered the multiple blunt injuries that killed her.
But a National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) accident summary and firefighter interviews made public Wednesday (NZT Thursday) disclosed for the first time that the girl was struck twice as she lay motionless near the airplane's left wing.
She was hit once by a fire rig spraying foam and again less than 11 minutes later by a second truck that was being turned around to fetch more water.
''Shortly thereafter, the victim (no longer covered due to the displacement of foam by the vehicle tires) was pointed out to the fire attack chief,'' the summary states. ''He reported the victim over the radio and had the body covered with a blanket.''
Firefighter interviews show that crew members from the first truck had spotted Yuan on the ground, thought she was dead and took steps to avoid her body before the truck accidentally rolled over her while manoeuvering closer to the plane.
Roger Phillips, a firefighter assigned to the airport, told NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration investigators that he saw a young female lying in a fetal position who appeared to be dead with a waxy face, rolled-back eyes and wearing an expression that ''looked like a grimace''.
The body looked like a mannequin used in CPR training, Phillips said, and he did not check the victim for vital signs, but reported the body to a lieutenant on the scene and to the truck's driver.
The lieutenant, concerned about the passengers still trapped in the wrecked plane, responded: ''Yes, yes, OK, OK. We've gotta get a line inside.''
In her interview, Lieutenant Christine Emmons said she saw the small body covered with dirt, made a ''three-second'' visual assessment and thought: ''That's our first casualty''.
Even though she considered the downed person to be ''DOA,'' Emmons told investigators she wanted to make sure the body was not run over.
The driver of the second vehicle that hit Yuan reported not seeing anyone on the ground, but the drivers of at least two other trucks said they saw a body and took care to avoid it.
One driver, firefighter Nicholas Bazarini, told investigators he thinks he ''definitely would have hit the body because he did not see it at all'' and only avoided striking Yuan because a chief on the ground opened his door and warned him: ''There is a body on the ground, you can't go this way.''
Testifying at the hearing, Assistant Deputy Chief Dale Carnes, who leads the San Francisco Fire Department's airport division, expressed regret for ''the additional insult to the deceased''.
''This is not a matter of us being careless or callous,'' Carnes said.
''It was the fact we were dealing with a very complex environment.''
Two other Chinese teens died of injuries the suffered in the July 6 crash.
The Asiana Airlines captain who crashed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in July has told investigators he was "very concerned" about attempting a visual approach because the runway's automatic landing aids were out of service due to construction.
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 low and slow in an accident that left three dead and more than 200 injured, 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 automated cues.
The investigative report was released at the start of a daylong NTSB hearing into the accident.
Though Lee was an experienced pilot with the Korea-based airline, he was a trainee in the Boeing 777.
NTSB investigator Bill English said Lee had less than 45 hours experience in the Boeing 777 and he last piloted a jet into San Francisco in 2004.
Lee told investigators that he realised others had been safely landing at San Francisco without the glide slope indicator, an array of antennas that transmits a signal into the cockpit, helping ensure the plane is landing correctly.
That system was out of service while the runway was expanded, and has since been restarted.
Lee was nervous about attempting to land using "stick and rudder" flying skills. Pilots spend more time managing computer systems than manually flying planes, systems that are more precise and use less fuel than a human pilot.
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 said he told his instructors about his concerns in the flight's planning stages. He told investigators that as he realised 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 organised or prepared", according to the investigative report.
Recordings from the cockpit show Lee took over the controls as the autopilot disconnected when the plane was about 1500 feet above San Francisco's 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 the trainee pilot 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 ground.
"It's low," an unnamed crewman said at 11.27 am.
In an instant, the plane began to shake.
At 20 feet, another crewman broke in: "Go around," he said.
It was too late. At impact, someone yelled: "Oh!"
Multiple alarms chimed in the cockpit as the crewmen sat stunned.
Lee acknowledged to investigators that it took him 20 to 30 seconds to order an evacuation from the shattered jet while he called the control tower to check on what was happening outside the plane.
NTSB investigators also raised concerns about a safety certification issue involving the Boeing 777's controls design, warning that the plane's automatic 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 it reached minimum airspeed.
But a primary project pilot who oversaw the Boeing 787 flight tests for the Federal Aviation Administration told the NTSB that the both the 787 and the B777 had 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 said the system and flight manuals had been evaluated and approved.
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.
San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Deputy Chief Dale Carnes is also scheduled to talk at today's hearing about how a fire truck racing toward the burning plane ran over a survivor on the tarmac.
Footage taken after the crash showed a fire truck running over 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan while she was lying on the tarmac covered with fire-retardant foam. The San Mateo County coroner later ruled that she was killed by the truck.
The hearing was originally scheduled to run for two days, starting yesterday, but it was postponed because of wintry weather in Washington, DC.