SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) — Surviving passengers have spoken, recalling how an uneventful 10-hour flight gave way to a horrific few minutes in which Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed, spun and burned.
On Tuesday, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters about what the person piloting the plane and the “instructor pilot” sitting next to him had told investigators about their experience over the years and on that fateful day.
The “flying pilot” — as the federal agency’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, referred to him — was a veteran pilot with nearly 10,000 hours of total flying time, though he was in his “initial operating experience” in flying a Boeing 777 like the one that crashed Saturday at San Francisco International Airport.
He had flown 10 legs and had about 35 hours of flying time with the 777, which put him about halfway through that required training of 20 legs and 60 flight hours, when the plane went down, Hersman said.
When that happened, sitting beside him was the instructor pilot. Saturday’s flight to northern California was the first time he had traveled with the flying pilot and the first time he had been an instructor pilot, according to Hersman.
These two were among four pilots — three of whom were in the cockpit at the time of the crash, while one was in the cabin — whom authorities interviewed Monday and Tuesday, Hersman told reporters.
Investigators hope these interviews, and others, will shed light on why the giant jet crash-landed.
“All of the crew members have been very cooperative and very forthright with our team,” Hersman said.
“One of the very critical things that needs to be monitored on landing is speed,” Deborah Hersman of the NTSB told reporters Tuesday, adding that investigators are looking into what was going on inside the cockpit among the three pilots as Asiana Flight 214 was “on landing” approach to San Francisco International Airport.
The plane’s main landing gear was the first part of the plane to strike the seawall near the runway at the airport along San Francisco Bay, followed by the the plane’s tail, Hersman told reporters Tuesday.
The pilots did not undergo drug or alcohol testing after Saturday’s crash landing, Hersman said. The United States does not have “oversight” of foreign-based operators or their crews, she said.
Two of the 307 passengers and crew aboard Saturday’s flight died on an otherwise normal day in northern California, after the rear of their plane struck the edge of the runway, severing the tail, sparking a fireball and sending the giant jet spinning until it finally stopped.
Two flight attendants were ejected when the plane slammed into the runway, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told reporters. “They were found down the runway, and off to the side of the runway,” she said.
Authorities transported 182 others to local hospitals.
Some of them were still hospitalized Tuesday, including four adults and one child in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital who were suffering from internal bleeding, fractures and spinal cord, abdominal and traumatic brain injuries, according to the hospital.
But despite the scale of the crash — which scattered wreckage from a seawall to the main wreckage site hundreds of feet up the runway, according to Hersman — most aboard have been able to walk away.
That includes 123 who never required hospitalization. Most who did require it ended up in local medical facilities. San Francisco General, for instance, by late Tuesday morning had discharged 50 of the 62 patients it had seen.
Union criticizes NTSB for releasing too much information
The question investigators are focusing on is why anyone was killed or hurt in the first place.
While Asiana’s chief executive officer, Yoon Young-doo arrived in the United States early Tuesday afternoon to see the crash scene for himself, Hersman has taken the lead in the U.S. investigation. She said Tuesday that initial crew interviews and reviews of flight data records don’t appear to show any problems with the plane or its components before the crash.
The air traffic control team found no evidence on voice communications of any distress calls before the accident, Hersman said. And investigators have found the flight’s pilots had the appropriate charts for the airport and approach in place in the cockpit, she added.
Both engines were producing power at the time, according to a preliminary review. Hersman added that an early look at FAA radar data indicates that there was “no abnormally steep descent curve that’s been detected” in the landing approach of the jet, she said, reacting to reports citing a steeper descent.
While some have speculated pilot error was to blame, Herman has publicly, and repeatedly, refuted such assertions and urged all to be patient.
“I think it really is too early to conclude pilot error because there’s so much that we don’t know,” she said. “We have to understand what these pilots knew. We also need to look at how they were flying the airplane.”
In a briefing Monday, Hersman told reporters the plane was flying too slowly as it approached the runway. Specifically, the jet was going 118 knots (136 mph) as it approached the runway and as low as 103 knots (118 mph) seconds before the crash — slower than the 137 knots (157 mph) it should have been going, a difference that’s spurred some analysts to conclude pilot error was to blame.
Given its speed, onboard systems warned the crew that the plane was about to stall four seconds before the crash, Hersman said.
Typically, such a warning would prompt a pilot to lower the plane’s nose and increase power, but the plane was too close to the ground to take such action. One-and-a-half seconds before impact, the crew called for a “go-around,” meaning they wanted to abort the landing and go around in the air to try to make another landing, according to Hersman.
The Air Line Pilots Association, for a second straight day on Tuesday, criticized what it called the “NTSB’s release of incomplete, out-of-context information” that “has fueled rampant speculation about the cause of the accident.” It questioned whether some tools were available to the crew, claiming, for instance, that the “Instrument Landing System, a critical aid to pilots, (was) out of service.”
“Without the full body of facts surrounding a catastrophic event, partial or incomplete information can lead to erroneous conclusions and, in turn, skew the perception of individuals’ behavior,” the pilots union said in its Tuesday statement. “This could then lead to misguided assessments of the crew’s intentions and actions.”
Hersman disputed the union’s claims Tuesday on CNN, saying the agency believes that transparent release of information is crucial.
“We believe that it is always better to put out the correct information and factual information so that bad information is not able to propagate,” she said.
CNN’s Michael Pearson and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.