An Asiana Airlines Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed this morning after reporting a fire onboard. The two pilots are missing and likely dead, authorities said.
The airplane, bound for Pudong, China, from Incheon International Airport, turned back toward Jeju International Airport after reporting the fire about an hour into the flight, but it crashed before being able to make it to Jeju.
The Jeju Coast Guard found debris and parts of the plane at sea about 122 kilometers (76 miles) southwest of Jeju, authorities said.
Asiana Flight OZ991 left Incheon at 3:05 a.m., but after detecting a fire in the cargo area, the pilots turned back. The plane disappeared from radar at 4:12 a.m. and the wreckage was found by the Coast Guard about two hours after the disappearance.
“We only can say that an in-flight fire, which occurred in the plane’s freight cargo, could be the reason for the crash because the pilots told us about the fire right before they disappeared from the radar,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said. “But we can’t say how the fire occurred, though there were inflammable materials in the cargo. And also, we are not sure whether there was an explosion.”
The two pilots were Capt. Choi Sang-gi, 52, and Lee Jeong-woong, 44. Choi has 14,000 hours of flying experience and has worked for the airline since 1991. Lee, the co-pilot, has 5,211 flying hours and joined the company in 2007.
The plane was carrying 58 tons of cargo, including semiconductors, electronic components and woven goods. However, a quarter ton of the cargo included inflammable material, like lithium batteries, paint, amino acid liquid and synthetic resins.
The airline said that all of the goods were loaded in accordance with guidelines from the International Air Transport Association.
“The Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board will examine the cause of the accident,” a Land Ministry spokesman said. “We expect to find the exact cause as well as secure the plane’s black box and the CVR [cockpit voice recorder].
“This is the first time in Korean history that a domestic aircraft crashed due to fire,” the spokesman said, adding that because of the fire, “we expect to experience more difficulty in finding the reason for the crash.”
Investigators will also consider other reasons for the crash, including pilot error, mechanical defects and weather conditions.
The Jeju Coast Guard is using five patrol ships and a helicopter in the search and has collected parts of the plane, including the cockpit seats and parts of the plane’s wings. But the search was proving difficult because of strong winds and high seas.