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Calif. crash investigators review cockpit decisions

Veteran pilot was unfamiliar with newer jet

SAN FRANCISCO — Investigators trying to understand why Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed focused Monday on decisions made in the cockpit of the giant jet, where an experienced pilot was learning his way around a new aircraft and fellow pilots were supposed to be monitoring his actions.

Authorities also reviewed the initial rescue efforts after fire officials acknowledged that one of their trucks may have run over one of the two Chinese teenagers killed at San Francisco International Airport. The students were the accident’s only two fatalities.

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Deborah Hersman, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman, said investigators watched airport surveillance video to determine whether an emergency vehicle ran over one of students. But they have not reached any firm conclusions. Final autopsy reports are pending.

The students had been seated in the rear of the aircraft, where many of the most seriously injured passengers were seated, Hersman said.

The NTSB also said part of the jet’s tail section was found in San Francisco Bay and debris from the seawall was carried several hundred feet down the runway, indicating the plane hit the wall on its approach.

Investigators have said Flight 214 was flying ‘‘significantly below’’ its target speed during approach when the crew tried to abort the landing just before the plane smashed onto the runway. Authorities do not know whether the pilot’s inexperience with the Boeing 777 and landing it at San Francisco’s airport played a role.

The airline acknowledged Monday in Seoul that the pilot at the controls had little experience flying that type of plane and was landing one for the first time at that airport.

Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said pilot Lee Gang-guk, who is 46, had logged nearly 10,000 hours operating other planes but had only 43 hours in the 777, a plane she said he was getting used to flying.

It’s not unusual for veteran pilots to learn about new aircraft by flying with more experienced colleagues. Another pilot on the flight, Lee Jeong-min, had about 12,390 hours of flying experience, including 3,220 hours on the 777, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport in South Korea.

Lee Jeong-min was the deputy pilot, tasked with helping Lee Gang-guk get accustomed to the 777, according to Asiana Airlines. It was unclear whether the other two pilots were in the cockpit, which seats four. But that would be standard procedure at the end of a long international flight.

NTSB lead investigator Bill English said pilot interviews were going slowly because of the need for translation. The interviews began only after agents from the Korean Aviation and Rail Accident Investigation Board arrived from South Korea.

New details of the investigation have also raised questions about whether the pilots may have been so reliant on automated cockpit systems that they failed to notice the plane’s airspeed had dropped dangerously low, aviation safety experts and other airline pilots said.

Information gleaned from the Boeing 777’s flight-data recorders revealed that the jet appeared to be descending normally until the last half-minute before impact. The autopilot was switched off at about 1,600 feet as the plane began its final descent, according to an account of the last 82 seconds of flight provided by Hersman.

Over the next 42 seconds, the plane appeared to descend normally, reaching about 500 feet and slowing to 154 miles per hour, a 777 pilot for a major airline familiar with Hersman’s description said. The pilot spoke on the condition of anonymity because his company had not approved his speaking publicly.

But something went wrong during the following 18 seconds. The plane continued slowing to 136 miles per hour, well below its target speed of 157 miles per hour that is typical for crossing the runway threshold. By that time, the plane had descended to just 200 feet.

Eight seconds later, with the speed still falling, Hersman said, the throttles were moved forward, an apparent attempt by the pilot to increase speed. But it was too late. Five seconds later, at 50 percent power, speed began to increase.

A key question raised by the NTSB’s account is why two experienced pilots — the pilot flying the plane and another supervising pilot in the other seat — apparently didn’t notice the plane’s airspeed problem.

Part of the answer to that question may lie in whether the pilot flying, after switching off the autopilot, still had the plane’s autothrottle engaged during the descent.

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