Federal transportation officials said Wednesday that the pilot of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was momentarily blinded shortly before the aircraft slammed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport and that automatic speed controls may have failed.
The pilot flying the jetliner told investigators that a bright light affected his vision when the plane was about 500 feet above the ground, said Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, at a press briefing. Hersman said, however, it was unclear exactly where the light came from.
Some speculated early on that pilot error may have been a contributing factor to the crash that killed two and sent more than 100 others to Bay Area hospitals on Saturday. The aircraft was flying too slowly and too low to the ground during its approach.
An Asiana Airlines spokeswoman said earlier this week the pilot flying the aircraft had nearly 10,000 hours of total flight time, but was in training to fly the Boeing 777, and had only logged about 43 hours on that type of plane.
But the flying pilot told investigators that he was off duty at home the day before the flight and got eight hours of sleep the night before, Hersman said. The total flight time between Seoul, South Korea – the originating city – and San Francisco is a little less than 11 hours. A relief crew also took over control of the flight for about five hours before the flying pilot and his training instructor returned to the cockpit for the final leg of the trip, which lasted about 90 minutes.
Data recovered from two recorders in the aircraft also show that crew members realized the plane was flying about 30 knots below its targeted landing speed of 137 knots, or 158 mph, and that it was about to stall just seconds before landing.
The pilots told investigators the automatic throttle, which controls the plane's speed, was not operating properly and failed to keep the aircraft at its targeted speed, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Hersman said that pilots can fly planes completely manually, use more automation or find a middle ground. But even though automation is much more sophisticated on today's aircrafts, Hersman said there are two pilots in the cockpit at a time because they are expected to monitor the selected automation actions.
At the time of the crash, there were three pilots in the cockpit: the flying pilot, his instructor and a relief first officer who was in the jump seat.
"They have a monitoring function, all three of them in the cockpit," Hersman said. "One of the very critical things that need to be monitored on approach to landing is speed."
Also on Wednesday, the California Highway Patrol released 911 calls from victims and witnesses of the crash, some frantically asking about how soon emergency responders and ambulances would arrive.
"We just crashed landed on the airline and it looks like help's coming, but not too many ambulances," said one caller, according to CBS.
Other callers said there did not appear to be enough medics on the scene, and one woman said she had been on the ground for up to 30 minutes without seeing an ambulance.
"There are people laying on the tarmac with critical injuries," the caller said. "We're almost losing a woman here. We're trying to keep her alive."
But Hersman said on Wednesday that emergency responders arrived at the scene about two minutes after the crash and that firefighters arrived one minute later.