SEOUL (AFP) – The trainer assigned to guide a pilot who crash-landed an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco was on his first day in the job, the carrier said, as investigators began interviewing the cockpit crew.
With speculation mounting that pilot error may have caused the fatal accident, the South Korean airline confirmed that trainer Lee Jung-Min had received his teaching licence for the Boeing 777 just a month before the crash on Saturday.
The trainer, an experienced pilot with thousands of flying hours, was assigned to guide colleague Lee Kang-Kuk, who was landing in the US city for the first time on that model of aircraft.
"This is not something abnormal. Every trainer has his first day as a trainer," an Asiana spokeswoman told AFP on Tuesday.
She added that the trainer had more than 3,000 hours of flight time on the Boeing 777.
The pilot, by contrast, had just 43 hours flying that model although he was experienced on other aircraft with more than 9,000 hours of flight time under his belt, Asiana said.
On Monday, the chief executive of South Korea's second-largest airline, Yoon Young-Doo, described as "intolerable" media reports that pilot inexperience may have been to blame for the fatal crash.
Two teenage Chinese girls were killed and more than 180 people injured when the flight from Seoul clipped a seawall short of the runway and went skidding out of control on its belly, shredding the tail end of the plane and starting a fire.
South Korean passenger Kim Ji-Eun, who was seated a few rows ahead of dozens of Chinese passengers at the rear of the cabin, including the two girls, described the terrifying crash.
"I saw people whose seat belts were somehow unbuckled being thrown out everywhere," Kim, 22, told the Chosun Ilbo daily.
"It was so scary. The (second) thud was so loud that people started screaming. I blinked once and looked back, only to see no one there," she said.
"I was so shocked to realise that none of the people who were seating behind me were there," she told the newspaper.
"I grabbed one of the oxygen masks tangled together overhead and wore it. Then I saw people screaming and jumping out of a big hole made in the aircraft and realised this was a very serious situation," said Kim, who damaged her spine jumping onto a wing.
Officials said about 20 people remained in critical condition in hospital.
A six-member South Korean team arrived in San Francisco on Monday to assist the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in probing the incident, said Choi Jeong-Ho, the head of South Korea's aviation bureau.
NTSB head Deborah Hersman said the aircraft's four-man cockpit crew were being quizzed as it emerged the plane had been flying well below the recommended speed for landing when it crashed at San Francisco International Airport.