NTSB says pilot error may be to blame for deadly South Korean plane crash in San Francisco

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by Jim Orr

A preliminary investigation of Sunday’s Asiana Airlines plane crash in San Francisco has revealed that pilot error may have been responsible for the accident that left two passengers dead and dozens more injured. A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board said that the South Korean Boeing 777 jet was traveling too slow as it approached the San Francisco International Airport runway and was being flown by a pilot who had little flying experience with the jumbo jet.

According to NTSB spokeswoman Deborah Hersman, data recorders from Asiana Flight 214 showed that the plane was traveling at a speed of only 103 knots three seconds before its tail struck the sea wall near the runway. Hersman said that 137 knots is the minimum speed that the plane should have been traveling in order to clear the runway threshold and land safely at the San Francisco airport. According to voice recorders on the aircraft, the crew of the South Korean airliner became aware that they were traveling too slow only seven seconds before the crash—too late to increase speed and abort the landing.

Hersman says that although the NTSB investigation will take months before it can determine the final cause of the crash, preliminary data points to pilot error as the cause of Sunday’s accident. Asiana Airlines has reported that the plane suffered no mechanical problems before the accident. That evidence—combined with the light winds at the time of the crash, the plane’s slow speed, and the fact that the plane was under manual control before the accident—suggests that human error may have been the sole factor responsible for the crash.

These findings were further strengthened by news that the pilot in control of the South Korean plane at the time of the crash may have been too inexperienced to land the plane safely. According to a spokesperson for Asiana Airlines, pilot Lee Gang-guk had been at the controls of a 777 jumbo jet for only 43 hours at the time of the accident and was making his first landing at San Francisco International Airport. Asiana Airlines officials have offered no explanation as to why another crew member—Lee Jeong-min, who had 3,220 hours of flying experience with the Boeing 777—was not piloting the plane at the time of the crash.

Despite these findings, South Korean officials have denied that the pilot of the Asiana Airlines flight should be blamed for the deadly crash. “[Lee Gang-guk] was a veteran pilot going through what every pilot has to when switching to a new type of plane,” says Chang Man-hee, a senior aviation policy official at the South Korean Transport Ministry.

Local officials say that 53 of the 307 passengers and crew members onboard Asiana Flight 214 were taken to the emergency room due to injuries caused by the accident, including at least eight passengers who remained in critical condition as of Monday. “We are used to these types of injuries, just not used to seeing them all at once,” said San Francisco General Hospital’s chief of trauma surgery, Margaret Knudson.

According to the testimony of at least one passenger, the Asiana Airlines crew gave little assistance to passengers trying to exit the burning plane. “We were left on our own, there was no message from the pilot, from the crew, there was no one. We had to help each other out,” said passenger Benjamin Levy. Mr. Levy says that after opening the plane’s emergency door, he and other passengers helped about 30 to 40 people out of the cabin before themselves exiting the plane.

Officials say that the death toll from the crash could have been much higher were it not for the fact that the center wing fuel tank located below the passengers on the Boeing 777 was empty after the 10 hour flight to the United States. Safety improvements made after the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 due to a fuel tank explosion in 2001 may have also limited the death toll from Sunday’s accident.

Lawsuits Against Asiana Airlines for San Francisco Plane Crash

Passengers on Asiana Airlines Flight 214 who were injured in the crash may be eligible to file a lawsuit over physical or emotional injuries resulting from the accident. Due to international laws governing the liability of air travel providers for deaths or injuries caused by airplane accidents, it is important to discuss your case with an experienced attorney who is familiar with the regulations surrounding an airplane crash lawsuit.

Several factors may influence whether class action lawsuits and other claims involving the San Francisco plane crash should be filed in the United States, South Korea, or even China, including:

  • The nationality of the airline carrier
  • The location where the ticket was purchased
  • The final destination printed on the ticket
  • The nationality of the passenger

To learn more about the legal issues surrounding the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco and to speak with a lawyer about your case, contact the law firm of Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling our toll-free hotline at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out the free case evaluation form at the top of this page.