SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — As Flight 214 descended over San Francisco Bay, both Asiana Airlines pilots were trying something new.
In the left seat of the cockpit sat Lee Gang-kuk, a 46-year-old pilot with 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. The flight came to a tragic end when the airliner, which came in too low and too slow, crash-landed on Saturday, killing two passengers and injuring many others as it skittered and spun 100 feet.
"The question is why did it land short. Obviously the captain is responsible, and in this case it's the instructor in the right seat who is responsible," said Kees Rietsema, a dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday the pilot trainee 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.
The agency also said that after the crash-landing, passengers were told to stay seated while the crew contacted the control tower as part of safety procedure. People did not begin fleeing the aircraft until 90 seconds later when a fire was spotted outside the plane.
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.
Investigators trying to piece together what went wrong will consider the report about the light and the pairing of the pilots, who were assigned to work together through a tightly regulated system developed after several deadly crashes in the 1980s were blamed in part on inexperience in the cockpit.
They will also be examining their working relationship, and whether junior officers were comfortable challenging their managers, and whether senior pilots will welcome that feedback, Hersman 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," former NTSB Chairman James Hall said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Mary Cummings said it's common for two commercial pilots who have never worked together before to be assigned to the same flight.
But she said the military tries to have crews work together more permanently.
"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.