NTSB Hearings on Buffalo Crash Expected to Focus on Pilots

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009; 8:18 PM

The professionalism of the pilots involved in the Feb. 12 crash of a commuter airplane outside Buffalo is expected to be a key area of scrutiny at public hearings into the accident next week, according to people who have been briefed by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The safety board is also expected to examine whether the pilots were properly trained to handle the plane's emergency features. Three days of hearings are scheduled to start Tuesday.

The Buffalo crash killed 49 people on board and one person on the ground. The Newark-to-Buffalo flight was operated by Manassas-based Colgan Air, a regional carrier with links to Continental Airlines. The safety board, which is conducting a federal probe into the crash, has called the accident the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in seven years.

According to the sources, transcripts from the cockpit voice recorders are expected to show "extensive discussion" by the two pilots -- discussions not related to flying. Those discussions could violate "sterile cockpit" rules, which seek to limit pilot talk to flying matters, particularly during certain high-risk operations. The safety board is also expected to examine issues related to crew scheduling and pilot fatigue.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the formal public hearing has not yet been held. A board spokesperson declined to comment.

The board will look at the effectiveness of pilot training on the use of emergency features on the plane, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop. According to a source familiar with the direction of the NTSB's investigation, neither pilot was fully trained to use the aircraft's stall warning and protection system, which includes a feature called the "stick pusher" that automatically presses the nose of the plane down to keep it from stalling.

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