The Asiana Airlines captain who crashed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in July told investigators he was stressed out and "very concerned" about attempting a visual approach because the runway's automatic warning systems were out of service due to construction.
Lee Kang Kuk, a 46-year-old pilot who was landing the big jet for his first time at San Francisco, "stated it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane," according to an investigative report released Wednesday. The jet crash landed after approaching low and slow in an accident that left three dead and more than 150 injured.
A visual approach involves lining the jet up for landing by looking through the windshield and using numerous other cues, rather than relying on a radio-based system that guides aircraft to the runway.
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The report was released at the start of a daylong National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the accident that in Washington, D.C. following the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 July 6 crash at SFO on July 6. Three teenage girls were killed, and nearly 200 passengers were injured.
The hearing was held to answering some lingering questions since the crash — the first fatality involving a commercial airliner in the United States since the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air near Buffalo, NY where 50 people died.
A viewing of the hearing was also being broadcast at the Crowne Hotel in Burlingame near SFO. The law requires that the hearing be accessible within 80 miles of the crash site. Early Wednesday, members of the NTSB, Red Cross and some staff from Asiana Airlines were in attendance. SFO airport officials in November released preliminary findings from a self-review of the airport's performance in the crash. The review cited the need for improvement in coordinating emergency responses and providing adequate customer service.
Though Lee was an experienced pilot with the Korea-based airline, he was a trainee captain in the 777, with less than 45 hours in the jet. He had not piloted an airliner into San Francisco since 2004, according to NTSB investigator Bill English.
So far, the investigation has not found any mechanical problems with the 777 prior to impact, although testing is ongoing, English said.
FULL COVERAGE: Flight 214 Crash Landing
Lee told investigators that he realized others had been safely landing at San Francisco without the glide-slope indicator, an array of antennas that transmits a signal into the cockpit to help with the descent. That system was out of service while the runway was expanded. It has since been restored.
In his interview, the trainee said that while privately he was "very concerned" about his ability to do a visual approach, "everyone else had been doing (it), so he could not say he could not do the visual approach."
There were other indications that a culture of not acknowledging weakness - and of deferring to a higher-ranking colleague - contributed to the crash.
Lee told NTSB investigators that he did not immediately move to abort the landing and perform a "go around'' as the plane descended because he felt that only the instructor pilot had the authority to initiate that emergency move.
A reluctance of junior officers to speak up had been an issue in past accidents, though industry training has tried to emphasize that safety should come first.
Lee also conceded that he was worried about his unfamiliarity with the 777's autoflight systems. He admitted he had not studied the systems well enough and thought that the plane's autothrottle was supposed to prevent the jet from flying below minimum speed as it drew near the runway.
But two other Asiana pilots who took an instruction class with Lee said that they were told that the throttle hold did not automatically re-engage under certain autopilot modes.
"This pilot should never have taken off,'' said attorney Ilyas Akbari, whose firm represents 14 of the passengers. "The fact that the pilot was stressed and nervous is a testament to the inadequate training he received, and those responsible for his training and for certifying his competency bear some of the culpability for the tragedy of this crash."
Lee told investigators that as he realized his approach was off, he was worried he might "fail his flight and would be embarrassed."
The start of the hearing began with apologies.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman opened the hearing by saying to the crowd of about 200 victims and family members: "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."
Jeong-kwen Park, a member of South Korea's Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board, also apologized: "We are deeply sorry. We are committed to doing everything we can to prevent such an accident from happening again."
NBC Bay Area contributed to this report.