Pilot error to blame in crash of Flight 3407 near Buffalo, NTSB says

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A13

Mistakes by pilots, not bad weather, caused the crash of a turboprop plane near Buffalo last year that killed 50 people, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday in its final hearing on the crash.

Among the errors: The plane's captain repeatedly yanked back on the control wheel when he should have pushed forward; the first officer miscalculated air speed and both were so distracted by a personal conversation that they were caught off guard in the minutes before the accident.

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the safety board, said the investigation revealed a "picture of complacency and confusion that resulted in catastrophe."

The safety board, the principal investigator of air accidents, adopted 46 recommendations related to the crash, in which a Colgan Air turboprop flying as Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed during its approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The Feb. 12 crash killed all 49 people on board and one man in a house, making it the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years. At the hearing, agency investigators portrayed the accident as almost completely avoidable. Investigators found that the plane -- a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 -- had no mechanical problems. Agency investigators also ruled out weather conditions, finding that the amount of ice accumulation on the plane did not alter its flight performance.

Additionally, the board announced that it planned to hold a public symposium on code-sharing agreements between airlines. Code-sharing allows major carriers to partner with smaller airlines, known within the industry as regional air carriers. The carriers typically operate small jet aircraft and turboprops. Major carriers say that under the code-sharing system, they are able to maintain profitable service to small cities.

Hersman said the board would examine government oversight and financial aspects of such relationships. Half of all scheduled flights in the United States are operated by regional airlines, which have a poor safety record when compared with major carriers.

Colgan operated Flight 3407, but Continental sold the tickets. In a series of congressional hearings during the past year, lawmakers have accused aviation regulators of lax government oversight of such arrangements.

At the hearing, safety board investigators blamed the two pilots for the crash. In an early mistake, Rebecca Shaw, the first officer, entered incorrect settings for landing speeds, investigators said. The settings caused the plane's automated anti-stall system to kick in when the plane slowed, even though the plane was not stalling.

The flight's captain, Marvin Renslow, reacted as if he were startled and confused, investigators said. Renslow pulled back on the yoke -- the opposite action that was called for, causing the plane to lose lift and fall from the sky, investigators said.

In the minutes before this action, investigators said, the pilots were engaged in a drawn-out conversation.

"It was continuous and one-sided, with the captain doing most of the talking," said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member. "It was as if the flight was just a means for the captain to conduct a conversation with this young first officer."

He said the excessive talk squandered time and attention that should have been used to oversee the plane's operations.

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