Panel Finds Pilots Broke Rules Before Fatal Crash

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2009 picture, workers remove debris at the scene of a plane crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y. Pilot training and fatigue are expected to be the focus of an unusual public hearing on Tuesday, May 12, 2009 into safety issues raised by the crash that killed 50 people. (AP Photo/David Duprey, Pool, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2009 picture, workers remove debris at the scene of a plane crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y. Pilot training and fatigue are expected to be the focus of an unusual public hearing on Tuesday, May 12, 2009 into safety issues raised by the crash that killed 50 people. (AP Photo/David Duprey, Pool, File) (David Duprey - AP)

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The co-pilot of doomed Continental Flight 3407 expressed shock and anxiety when she saw the windshield taking on ice, long considered a major safety hazard.

The captain responded with a story of how he had handled ice in the past. Within minutes, the two were grappling with how to regain control of the plane -- a Dash 8 Q400 twin-engine turboprop -- as it headed into a stall.

The pilots' talking violated federal rules that limit conversation in the cockpit to operational matters, particularly during takeoff and landing.

The plane crashed on its approach to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, killing all 49 onboard and one person on the ground. The Feb. 12 crash was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in seven years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which yesterday began three days of public hearings into the incident. Safety investigators have already said the ice had a minimal impact on the plane's performance; instead, the focus is on how the pilots reacted.

According to transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder, Rebecca Shaw, the co-pilot, expressed anxiety about her training as she looked out the cockpit windows.

"I've never seen icing conditions," Shaw told Capt. Marvin Renslow. "I've never de-iced. I've never seen any -- I've never experienced any of that. I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of call[s]. You know I'd have freaked out. I'd have, like, seen this much ice and thought, 'Oh, my gosh, we're going to crash.' "

During this critical period, Renslow begins to tell a story about flying a Saab turboprop in Charleston, W.Va., where he saw ice build up and "would pick up and keep on truckin'."

After alerts sound in the background, Renslow returns to the story, even saying that he was "more comfortable" because of his experience. He continues the instrument and landing checklists as Shaw grows increasingly alarmed. Within seconds, he says, "Jesus Christ" and, "We're down." Shaw screams in the background.

According to details that have emerged, the pilots appeared to have had difficulty reacting to the plane's anti-stall warning system, which included a mechanism called the stick shaker, in which the control wheel vibrates strongly as a warning. But the pilots continued to lose control. Moments later, another emergency feature -- the stick-pusher -- engaged as an automatic system kicked in to temporarily take control and force down the nose of the plane to counter the stall. Renslow counteracted the system by pulling back on the wheel, causing the plane to lose lift. It then plunged to the ground.

"They were cold-cocked. They really didn't see this thing coming," said William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, who evaluated the transcripts.

Voss said the talking distracted the pilots, who had only seconds to react. "It's pretty clear there were a lot of extraneous conversations," he said.

The back-and-forth came after the pilots had announced to passengers that a landing was underway. The pilots worked for Manassas-based Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental.

The NTSB has not determined the cause of the crash and won't detail its complete findings until next year. Mark V. Rosenker, acting NTSB chairman, said the board wants to demonstrate transparency, given the high level of public interest in the crash, the only fatal U.S. commercial aviation accident in two years.

About 70 family members of crash victims attended the hearing yesterday, some wearing ribbons and others with pictures of loved ones around their necks. Kenneth Mellett, father of Coleman T. Mellett, a 34-year-old jazz musician who died in the crash, wore a picture of his son playing the guitar at a concert.

"What I've heard today has been very revealing," said Mellett, who lives in McLean. "There was a little bit of a nonchalant attitude on the part of the airline employees -- the fact that the co-pilot took a red-eye on the morning of the flight, the fact she was text-messaging throughout the course of the day. That indicates to me that she did not have sufficient rest."

Investigators at the hearing also raised questions about Colgan pilots' commuting time. Long commutes, which could lead to fatigue, have long been a major safety concern of federal regulators. Both pilots were based in Newark but lived in other cities and got to work by hopping planes.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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