NTSB prepares to rule on Asiana airliner crash

Washington (AFP) - The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) convenes Tuesday to establish why a South Korean jet crashed while landing in San Francisco last year, leaving three dead.

It's expected to set out a probable cause of the Asiana Flight 214 crash as well as contributing factors behind the first fatal commercial airline disaster in the United States since 2009.

The Boeing 777 was completing an otherwise routine 10-1/2 hour flight from Seoul when it clipped the seawall at San Francisco International Airport July 6 with its landing gear, skidded off the runway and burst into flames.

Surviving the crash were 182 passengers and crew, including captain Lee Kang-Kuk, a newcomer to the 777 after years flying Airbuses, and co-pilot Lee Jung-Min, who had only recently been certified to train new 777 pilots.

All three of the fatalities were young Chinese women, including two who apparently had not buckled their seat beats. One of the dead was struck by a fire truck beneath a wing covered with firefighting foam.

In a press statement in April that echoed an NTSB investigative hearing in December, Asiana acknowledged the flight crew had failed to maintain "a minimum safe airspeed" on final approach, thus slipping below the proper landing approach angle.

It added that the pilots had been misled by "inconsistencies" in the highly automated cockpit of their Boeing 777-200ER which caused them to think that its auto-throttle was maintaining a set airspeed.

- Automation at issue -

"Automation is something I'm sure will be talked about," Anthony Brickhouse, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former NTSB investigator, told AFP ahead of Tuesday's board meeting.

"Our planes today are highly automated -- and you have one camp that believes in automation and you have another camp that feels that pilots need to fly more," he said.

"This accident will definitely bring more light to automation and what role it plays."

The NTSB has said the autopilot was switched off about three miles (4.8 kilometers) out, and that the airspeed dipped as low as 103 knots (191 kilometers per hour), or 34 knots below the ideal approach speed.

So low did the "triple seven" descend that an array of approach lights at the end of the runway -- a key visual aid to landing -- showed four red lights, a situation that would call for an aborted landing.

Due to construction work, the instrument landing system (ILS) at San Francisco was out of order on the day of the crash -- requiring pilots to go back to basics and visually guide their planes to Earth.

Asiana -- fined $500,000 by US authorities for failing to properly help families of the crash victims -- has defended the pilots, calling them "competent" aviators who had flown dozens of times to and from San Francisco.

But in the aftermath of the crash, captain Lee told NTSB investigators he felt "very stressful" about not having the ILS available for him to set up a smooth approach at a stabilized speed and angle.

Robert Goyer, editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said he strongly suspects the NTSB will "weigh in on the issue of training pilots to know when to take manual control of the airplane and how to do it."

"The Asiana accident is fascinating to just about every pilot and to many not in aviation because, in our ever more technologized world, automation is an increasing fact of life," he told AFP by email.

"Knowing precisely what went wrong with the flight and figuring out how to avoid it in the future could drive public policy on automation across industry segments."

[Image via Agence France-Presse]