The pilot thought to be at the controls of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 which crashed at San Francisco airport was still training to fly the aircraft, reports claim today.

South Korean officials defended the decision to let him land the aircraft on Saturday, even though he had logged only 43 hours of experience on 777s.

The pilot was identified by an airline spokesperson as Lee Gang Guk, according to the Financial Times.

Choi Seung-youn, an official for Seoul’s transport ministry, said Lee had 9,000 hours’ experience on other types of aircraft and was under the supervision of a training pilot.

“It is a common international practice often used by other foreign airliners too when a new pilot is hired or a pilot needs to get used to flying a different type of aeroplane,” Choi was reported as saying in the FT. “This is unavoidable.”

US aviation investigators have yet to establish who had been at the controls when the aircraft hit a sea wall short of the runway.

Two Chinese girls, both aged 16, were killed in the accident, from which 289 passengers and 16 crew members escaped.

Lee had flown to San Francisco 29 times before on different types of aircraft, although Saturday was his first attempt to land a 777 there, according to the Korean transport ministry spokesman.

He said Lee was accompanied by another senior pilot who had accumulated more than 3,000 hours on a 777.

“Although the pilot was still in training for a Boeing 777, he can be in the pilot’s seat under the supervision of a senior pilot,” Choi said.

He and US officials cautioned against blaming the crash on pilot error before a full investigation is completed.

“We need more investigations to find out the exact cause of the crash landing. It is too early to link the accident to the pilot’s inexperience of flying that particular aircraft.”

Asiana said the crash landing in San Francisco had not yet had any big effect on its bookings.