By Alwyn Scott
WASHINGTON Dec 11 Pilots of an Asiana Airlines
Inc plane that crash-landed in San Francisco last
summer were aware the plane was traveling too slowly and tried
to correct it in the final seconds before impact, according to
documents released on Wednesday by U.S. aviation safety
The crash on July 6 killed three people and injured more
than 180, and was the first fatal commercial airplane crash in
the United States since February 2009. The co-pilot, who was
training the pilot flying the plane, thought the autothrottle on
the Boeing 777 jet might not have been operating, the
The pilot flying the plane said he wasn't sure whether
autothrottle, used to set engine thrust power, was maintaining
speed, according to the documents.
The low, slow landing caused the plane's tail to hit a
seawall short of the runway. The plane spun 330 degrees as it
broke apart and caught fire, strewing wreckage along the runway.
The National Transportation Safety Board released dozens of
detailed documents related to the crash as it opened an
investigative hearing into its causes.
The hearing, which began on Wednesday, focused on whether an
over-reliance on autopilot systems in modern aircraft has led to
degraded human flying skills and increased the risk of
It also is looking at the design of cockpit equipment on
Boeing's 777 plane, an aircraft that, until the crash, had not
been involved in a fatal accident since it entered service in
The Asiana pilots said in interviews with the NTSB that they
left their "flight director" system, which includes the
autopilot, partially on. In that mode, the system prevented a
"wake-up" from hold mode from taking place, Capt. John Cashman,
a retired Boeing 777 test pilot, testified at the hearing on
Wednesday. The lack of wake-up meant the autothrottle was not
going to prevent the plane's speed from slowing, he said.
The design is consistent with Boeing's philosophy of leaving
the pilot in charge of the controls. "We try not to put in
design elements that override the pilot," Cashman said at the
hearing. "We try to let him be the decider."
Cashman said the design principles had been consistent for
31 years, across Boeing's 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 models and
had logged nearly 210 million flight hours and 55 million
Documents released on Wednesday showed the "wake up" issue
had been raised before, including during certification of
Boeing's latest jet, the 787 Dreamliner, which has a similar
autothrottle system and was certified in 2011.
In an interview following the Asiana accident, Eugene
Arnold, a test pilot for the Federal Aviation Administration,
said he raised concern that the Boeing autothrottle would not
"wake up" while in two of its modes.
Arnold noticed this while flying a Boeing 787 Dreamliner
during its test phase. The 787, a next-generation jet that was
introduced in 2011, had a similar autothrottle to the 777.
According to NTSB documents, Arnold "felt that even though
the system had been certified previously and had met the
requirements of FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations), it was a
less-than-desirable feature and it could be improved upon."
In response, Boeing said the autothrottle had been certified
and had no problems in service, and "met the requirements for
what was intended for the system," according to Arnold.
The FAA later informed foreign regulators, including the
European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), about the issue.
The FAA and EASA both said the autothrottle function in
flight change mode "was a less-than-desirable feature that could
be improved upon," Arnold said, according to the report.
Later, EASA noted that autothrottle would not wake up in two
modes of the system, and suggested that eliminating the
exceptions would improve the system.
"Although the certification team accepts that this
autothrottle wakeup feature is not required per certification
requirements, these two (mode) exceptions look from a pilot's
perspective as an inconsistency in the automation behavior of
the airplane," EASA wrote in a report to the FAA, cited by
"Inconsistency in automation behavior has been in the past a
strong contributor to aviation accidents," the EASA continued.
"The manufacturer would enhance the safety of the product by
avoiding exceptions in the autothrottle wake-up mode condition."
According to Arnold, Boeing noted in the 787 operating
manual that in certain flight modes, the autothrottle "will not
wake up even during large deviations from target speed and does
not support stall protection."
The matter was also noted in the 777 operation manual,
Arnold said, according to the report, but in more abbreviated
"Airlines could elect to go ahead and put the (flight
manual) note in their own" operating manuals for pilots, "but he
doubted that a lot of airlines had done so," according to the