Before Crash, Plane Was On Autopilot

Two people hold flowers at a road block near the crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y., Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Two people hold flowers at a road block near the crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y., Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) (Mike Groll - AP)

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Monday, February 16, 2009

The pilots of the Continental Connection commuter flight that crashed Thursday near Buffalo Niagara International Airport, killing 50, were flying on autopilot before preparing the plane to land, a federal transportation safety official said yesterday.

Steven R. Chealander, the National Transportation Safety Board member at the crash site, said that the agency has sought tighter federal regulations to require pilots to disengage automatic flying systems in icy weather. He also pointed to the flight manual of the airplane, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop, which calls for pilots to shut off the system in "severe" icing conditions, but Chealander stopped short of saying the pilots acted improperly by activating the system.

Weather conditions have emerged as a central part of the investigation. On Friday, the NTSB disclosed that the cockpit voice recorder captured the pilots talking about ice buildup on the wings and other parts of the plane shortly before it plummeted from the sky.

A safety alert issued late last year by the NTSB noted that autopilot systems can mask handling problems associated with icing. It urged pilots to hand-fly to get a better sense of the plane's performance.

Ice buildup on a similar turboprop, operated by American Eagle, led to a 1994 crash in Roselawn, Ind., that killed 68. Icing also brought down an Embraer 120 commuter plane near the Detroit airport in 1997, killing 29. Investigators blamed lax regulations for that accident, and the safety board continues to give the Federal Aviation Administration an "unacceptable" rating on a majority of icing issues.

-- Sholnn Freeman


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