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NTSB: South Korean plane was flying far too slowly to reach runway just before crash

The South Korean jetliner that crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday was flying far too slowly to reach the runway and stalled when the pilot gunned his engines in a futile effort to abort the landing, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.

The investigation into the crash of the Boeing 777 came to focus more sharply on possible pilot error yesterday as the president of Asiana Airlines ruled out a mechanical failure and federal investigators sought to interview the cockpit crew.

“We’re not talking about a few knots here or there. It was significantly below the 137 knots” required for the approach, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in describing data taken from the cockpit and flight data recorders. “We do hope to interview the crew members within the next few days.”

Hersman said the cockpit recorder revealed that 7 seconds before impact there was a call to increase the plane’s speed. Three seconds later a “stick shaker” – a violent vibration of the control yoke intended as a warning to the pilot – indicated the plane was about to stall.

Just 1½ seconds later, a crew member called out to abort the landing.

Hersman said her agency was a long way – perhaps a matter of months – from reaching a conclusion on what caused the crash. But with Asiana insisting that there was no mechanical failure, the data from the flight recorders showing the plane far below appropriate speed and the fact that the pilots were controlling the plane in what is called a “visual approach,” the available evidence yesterday suggested the crew was at fault.

Two Chinese teenagers were killed and scores of other passengers were injured just before noon Saturday when the Boeing 777 airliner struck a sea wall at the end of the runway tail first and then skidded about 2,000 feet before catching fire.

At least eight passengers remained in critical condition at two hospitals yesterday, officials said. Six of them were at San Francisco General Hospital, where the chief of trauma surgery, Margaret Knudson, said some of the 53 patients taken to the emergency room suffered from minor burns or injuries caused by seat belts or from slamming into other seats. Those still in critical condition had head injuries, internal bleeding or fractured spines.

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