NTSB: Pilot initially told flight crew not to evacuate Asiana plane

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. Federal safety officials say a pilot initially told passengers not to evacuate an Asiana Airlines flight that crash landed in San Francisco.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that people did not begin fleeing the aircraft until 90 seconds later when a fire erupted. At that point, the doors were opened and escape slides were inflated. Two flight attendants were pinned by slides that inflated inside during the impact.

As CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reported, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said it was one of the flight attendants who insisted passengers had to start getting off the aircraft.

"He could see fire outside of the window," Hersman said. "He sent the flight attendant who was sitting with him up to the front of the cabin to let them know that there was fire and that they needed to evacuate."

Officials say the delay occurred as the pilot checked with the tower at the airport.

CBS News aviation consultant Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, who piloted the "Miracle on the Hudson" jet in 2009, told "Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley that the flight attendants were following their training, which is "to contact the contact the cockpit and ask for direction."

"It was important to note," Sullenberger added, "that the flight attendant...immediately saw fire on the right side and communicated that to the front and recommended evacuation so that it could take place quickly."

About why the pilots would insist that everybody stay in their seats, Sullenberger explained that some number of seconds were needed "to assess the situation and make sure that it wasn't more dangerous for them to immediately evacuate into an unknown situation than to remain on board. Of course, it's also important to notice that the flight attendants, of course, have the ability to immediately begin the evacuation when they determine that the threat exists and it's an immediate danger, or if they can't contact the pilots."

In this Saturday, July 6, 2013, photo provided by passenger Benjamin Levy, passengers from Asiana Airlines flight 214, many with their luggage, on the tarmac just moments after the plane crashed at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco.
AP Photo/Benjamin Levy

Two passengers were killed and many others injured in the crash.

Prior to the incident, sitting in the left seat of the cockpit was Lee Gang-kuk, a 46-year-old pilot with just 35 hours of experience flying a Boeing 777 who was landing the big jet for his first time at San Francisco International Airport. At his right was Lee Jeong-Min, a trainer making his first trip as an instructor pilot. While the two men had years of aviation experience, this mission involved unfamiliar duties, and it was the first time they had flown together.

Hersman said Wednesday the pilot told investigators he was blinded by a light at about 500 feet, which would have been 34 seconds before impact and the point at which the airliner began to slow and drop precipitously. She said lasers have not been ruled out.

It was unclear, however, if the flash might have played a role in the crash.

Experts say investigators trying to piece together what went wrong will consider the report about the light and many other factors including the pairing of the pilots, who were assigned to work together through a tightly regulated system developed after several deadly crashes in the 1980s that were blamed in part on inexperience in the cockpit.

The NTSB "is definitely going to focus on what type of policy Asiana had in terms of crew pairing," former NTSB Chairman James Hall said. "That's what the airline needs to do, be responsible so that in the cockpit you're matching the best people, especially when you're introducing someone to a new aircraft."

Pilots are typically paired by management and are not allowed to choose their partners in the cockpit.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Mary Cummings said it's common for two commercial pilots to be assigned to the same flight without ever working together before. Airlines have standardized, formal procedures to facilitate teams of strangers.

The military tries to have crews work together more permanently, she said.

"Research would tell you that crew pairing with the same people over longer periods of time is safer," she said. "When two people fly together all the time, you get into a routine that's more efficient. You have experience communicating."

Jeff Skiles, a US Airways first officer, said that with the right training it should not matter if a pilot new to a plane is paired with a pilot making his first trip as a training captain.

"Everybody had to have their first time," Skiles said. "You can't show up and have 500 hours experience in aircraft."

Along with Sullenberger, Skiles was the co-pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson" jet that lost thrust in both engines after colliding with a flock of geese. The skillful flying of Sullenberger and teamwork between Skiles and Sullenberger was credited for a near-perfect water landing on the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey that saved the lives of all aboard.

The January 2009 accident happened after the pilots had been paired together only four days.

Details emerging from pilot interviews, cockpit recorders and control-tower communications indicate that Lee Gang-kuk, who was halfway through his certification training for the Boeing 777, and his co-pilot and instructor, Lee Jeong-Min, thought the airliner's speed was being controlled by an autothrottle, which was set for 157 mph.

Inspectors found that the autothrottle had been "armed," or made ready for activation, Hersman said. But investigators are still determining whether it had been engaged.