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Pilots Have Extensive Training Before Flying New Aircraft


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In San Francisco, federal investigators have spent two days interviewing the pilots on board Asiana Flight 214, which crashed there Saturday. Two people were killed in the crash, and scores injured. The aircraft, a Boeing 777, came down short of the runway. Its tail and landing gear clipping a seawall. And investigators want to find out why that happened.

Joining us is NPR's Brian Naylor. And, Brian, the National Transportation Safety Board actually briefed reporters this afternoon. What's the latest?

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Right, Audie. Well, they've been conducting interviews with the four pilots who were on board the flight. We learned today that at the time of the crash, three of those pilots were in the cockpit; one was back in the cabin. The two key players were the pilot flying the plane, who was a trainee with just 35 hours experience at the controls of a Boeing 777, although he had a lot of other flying experience on Boeing jets, and the other was the instructor pilot. He had a lot more experience, 3,000 hours at the controls of a 777. But - and this could be significant.

The NTSB said this was the first time he had flown as an instructor or training pilot, and it was the first time that the two of them had flown together. Now, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said the interviews have been slow because of the pilots' limited English and the need for translation. And obviously, the investigators want to make sure they understand exactly what the pilots are communicating.

CORNISH: What else did they learn from these pilots?

NAYLOR: There's a number of interesting things. Hersman said they knew the plane was coming in wrong based on lights on the side of the runway that signaled they were coming in too low. Here's what Hersman said the instructor pilot told investigators.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: At about 500 feet, he realized that they were low. He reported seeing three red and one white on the PAPI.

NAYLOR: And the PAPI stands for Precision Approach Path Indicator, basically four color-coded lights at the side of the runway that tell pilots if they're on the proper glide path for landing. Asiana 214 was not. The pilots tried to abort the landing, but it was too late. The pilot also said they had entered the correct speed in the auto throttle for landing, so it's not exactly clear what went wrong, why the plane came in too low and slow. But Hersman was careful to say that it's too soon to say if this was a case of pilot error or equipment failure.

CORNISH: We're learning a lot about the pilots here. What about the rest of the crew?

NAYLOR: Well, one amazing thing Hersman said today, two of the flight attendants who were sitting at the rear of the plane - now, we know the landing gear and then the tail hit the seawall at the edge of the runway, and the tail section was torn off. Now, here's what Hersman said about the flight attendants.

HERSMAN: Two of the flight attendants in the rear of the aircraft were ejected from the aircraft on - during the impact sequence, and so they were not at their stations when the aircraft came to rest. They were found down the runway and off to the side of the runway.

NAYLOR: And Hersman said both of those flight attendants survived with injuries. So that was pretty miraculous. One other thing, none of the pilots were tested for drugs or alcohol because, apparently, foreign-based pilots don't have to be.

CORNISH: Are there any other angles that the NTSB is looking into?

NAYLOR: Well, they'll be looking at the structure of the jet itself - much of which remained intact after the crash. They also are going to be looking at where the passengers were sitting. They're waiting to get a manifest of exactly where the passengers were to better understand how injuries occurred. And they also want to look at how the plane was evacuated because at least one of the plane's inflatable slides opened on the inside of the jet.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.