Updated: 12/12/2013 09:59 | By Agence France-Presse

Asiana pilot 'stressful' prior to San Francisco crash

The pilot of a South Korean airliner that crashed in San Francisco in July felt very stressed about touching down without a functioning instrument landing system to guide him, according to newly released documents.

Asiana pilot 'stressful' prior to San Francisco crash

An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 is seen on the runway at San Francisco International Airport after crash landing on July 6, 2013

Three passengers died when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 clipped a seawall with its landing gear, skidded off the runway and burst into flames at the tragic end of an otherwise routine flight from Seoul on July 6.

Another 182 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 777 were injured, in the first fatal commercial airline crash in the United States since 2009.

A summary of Captain Lee Kang-Kuk's interview with US air accident investigators was made public as part of a day-long National Transportation Safety Board hearing in the US capital.

"We heard a lot today," NTSB chief Deborah Hersman told reporters at the end of the hearing, adding that the case remained a top priority for the federal agency.

While the final report should be ready by the first anniversary of the crash, Hersman said "we will take as long as we need to complete the investigation."

According to the NTSB summary posted online, Lee -- a seasoned aviator undergoing transition training to the Boeing 777 -- told investigators he felt "very stressful" about making a visual approach.

The instrument landing system at San Francisco had been out of service since June due to construction work, calling for a hands-on approach on an otherwise fine summer day.

Under normal circumstances, the ILS would let pilots know if they were too high or too low. 

A visual approach requires looking out the window and taking cues from an array of approach lights at the runway's edge.

"Asked about whether he was concerned about his ability to perform a visual approach, he said, 'very concerned, yeah,'" according to the NTSB summary.

"Asked what aspect he was most concerned about, he said 'the unstable approach'" -- the ability to set up an airplane for landing at a precise speed, direction and rate of descent, the document said.

"He added, 'exactly controlling the descent profile and the lateral profile, that is very stressful.'"

Lee had flown Airbus A320s for Asiana from 2005 until February this year, when he began training to master the bigger 777.

He had 9,700 hours of flight experience, but only 35 hours in the Boeing 777.

Earlier in his career, Lee had twice landed at San Francisco, once manually, as co-pilot of an Asiana Boeing 747.

In the co-pilot's seat at the end of the 10.5-hour flight was Lee Jung-Min, who had 3,200 hours' experience in the Boeing 777 but was only recently certified to instruct other pilots on its operation.

Bill English, the NTSB investigator leading the Asiana probe, said the autopilot was switched off about three miles (4.8 kilometers) out, and that the airspeed dipped as low as 103 knots (191 kilometers per hour), or 34 knots below the ideal approach speed.

The aircraft, meanwhile, descended so low that an array of approach lights at the end of the runway -- a key visual aid to landing -- showed four red lights, a situation that would call for an aborted landing.

None of the ill-starred flight's four pilots, 12 flight attendants and 291 passengers, many of them South Korean and Chinese nationals, were scheduled to testify Wednesday.

All three of the fatalities were young Chinese women -- including one who was fatally hit by a fire engine beneath an aircraft wing covered with firefighting foam.

Interviews with survivors indicated that the other two fatalities were apparently not wearing their seat belts, the hearing was told.

"Pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene" when a situation calls for hands-on control, said Federal Aviation Administration scientist Kathy Abbott.

Captain Dave McKenney of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations said today's pilots are expected to use automated systems so often that they get "few chances" to keep up their manual skills.

On the rescue effort, Assistant Deputy Chief Dale Carnes of the San Francisco Fire Department's airport division said all trapped passengers were pulled from the wreckage within 19 minutes of the crash.

He regretted that a survivor had been fatally hit by a fire truck, but insisted: "We were very much focused on the task at hand -- and that was rescuing as many people as possible."

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