WASHINGTON -- The first hearing into the deadly Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport revealed a series of missteps by an admittedly nervous pilot that aviation experts say raise questions about his training and command of the aircraft.
In an interview with federal investigators submitted for the hearing, the pilot, Lee Kang Kuk, indicated that he didn't fully understand how the aircraft's auto-throttle worked, and that he was uncomfortable with aborting the landing without explicit permission from a senior pilot.
While a final report from federal regulators on the cause of the crash is months away, Wednesday's hearing indicated that investigators are closely scrutinizing the actions of the pilots at the helm of the giant plane on that fateful day.
The one-day hearing -- condensed from the original two days because of the brutal snowstorm that hit the nation's capital -- also focused on whether the pilots relied too much on automation, and whether Korean culture played a role in the pilots' failure to avoid the crash.
The pilot, Lee Kang Kuk, was making his maiden landing at SFO in a Boeing 777. Experienced in flying other aircraft, Lee was trying to land while under the supervision of a senior pilot who was making his inaugural flight as a trainer.
Lee told National Transportation Safety Board investigators before the hearing -- he and the other pilots did not appear in person -- that he was especially nervous because the airport's glide slope, which helps planes land, was temporarily out of service for runway upgrades.
But Barry Schiff, a former TWA pilot and an aviation expert, told this newspaper he didn't understand why Lee was worried about the lack of the electronic glide slope on a clear flying day. "All that tells me is that the pilots are not particularly competent. They had a visual glide slope -- all they had to do is look out their window."
About 3.5 miles from the runway and at an altitude of 1,600 feet, Lee disconnected the autopilot and switched an auto-throttle system to an idle mode that he incorrectly thought would keep his airspeed at a safe level for landing.
Even as the aircraft dangerously lost altitude, Lee held off aborting the landing.
The relationship between Lee and the senior pilot training him, Lee Jungmin, might have contributed to cockpit confusion. Lee Kang Kuk told investigators he was reluctant to abort the landing even though the NTSB referred to him as the "flying pilot."
Lee Kang Kuk finally initiated a "go-around," or second attempt to land, but by then, it was too late. The plane's tail struck a sea wall and skidded to a halt in a crash landing that took three lives and injured 200 people.
Schiff and other experts said the reports and testimony at the hearing raised fundamental questions about pilot training; overreliance on automation that has become a concern as airplanes are designed to virtually fly themselves, and problems with the top-down Korean command culture.
Jay Joseph of Joseph Aviation Consulting, in Kyle, Texas, said the testimony revealed "some of the problems we have now with a new generation of pilots who are accustomed to everything being provided to them electronically, even to flying with the autopilot. It's a sad commentary about where aviation has gotten itself."
The NTSB interview with Lee Kang Kuk also addressed speculation about whether South Korean cockpit culture -- and the relationship between the trainee pilot and his instructor -- were factors.
"Asked whether Asiana had a policy encouraging junior pilots to speak up if they felt uncomfortable about something, he said yes," according to the NTSB's interview.
But asked if he felt that he had the authority to commence a go-around, Lee said, "Go-around thing. That is very important thing. But the instructor pilot got the authority. Even I am on the left seat, that is very hard to explain, that is our culture."
Doug Moss, an aviation expert with AeroPacific Consulting in Reno, said the confusion over who was in charge is "understandable" given Korean deference to senior authority.
In the U.S, "anyone in the flight deck has the ability, authority and responsibility to call for a go-around," he said. "That has not filtered down to the Asian culture. There is still some resistance."
The plane also carried two additional pilots for the overnight, nearly 11-hour, trans-Pacific flight.
According to a summary of NTSB interviews with the pilots, Lee said he found landing at SFO very demanding.
"He said it was very stressful, very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane, always," according to the NTSB document. He told investigators he was "very concerned" about his ability to perform a visual approach, and that even landing and taxiing to the gate was stressful.
The crash was the first with fatalities involving a commercial airliner in the United States since the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air near Buffalo, N.Y., that claimed 50 lives.
Wang Linjia, 16, and her Chinese school classmate, 16-year-old Ye Mengyuan, were both ejected from the plane when the tail snapped off in the crash. Wang was found dead near the back of the plane while Ye's body inexplicably ended up in front of the left wing, where she was then covered in flame-retardant foam and later killed by a San Francisco Fire Department truck responding to the crash. Some of her seat mates reported she may not have been wearing her seat belt, and the NTSB said it is still investigating that. Fellow passenger Liu Yipeng, 15, was discovered in the wreckage still strapped in her seat, and later died from her injuries.
At the start of the hearing, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman directed part of her opening comments to the victims and their families and said, "We recognize that your lives were forever changed when the crash occurred, and we know that nothing can replace the loss of your loved ones or repair the trauma of a life-changing injury. But we do have the opportunity today to ensure that the lessons of this tragedy are well-learned and that the circumstances are not repeated."
Once the NTSB wraps up its investigation some time next year, it's likely to make recommendations to the FAA regarding pilots and flight crews, according to aviation safety experts.
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.