Pilot in Buffalo crash had trouble learning aircraft system: records

The pilot in the worst U.S. air crash in more than seven years had trouble learning a critical computer system on the plane he was flying, according to training documents released by safety investigators on Tuesday.

The pilot in a deadly commuter airplane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year had trouble learning a critical computer system on the plane he was flying, according to training documents released by safety investigators on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, transcripts of flight recordings inside the cabin of Continental Airlines Flight 3407 show the pilot and first officer discussed their fear of flying in icy weather, just moments before the plane crashed into a home in Clarence Center, killing 50 people.

The information was released at the beginning of a three-day National Transportation Safety Board public hearing into the Feb. 12 crash.

Tuesday's hearing opened with a chilling animated video re-creating the final moments of the aircraft as it approached Buffalo airport.  

The aircraft, owned and operated by Continental's regional carrier, Colgan Air Inc., experienced an aerodynamic stall, rolled over and crashed into a Buffalo-area house, killing all 49 people aboard and one man in the house.

Don McDonald, from Fort Erie, Ont., was the lone Canadian among the victims.

According to the NTSB records, Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, struggled with the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier twin-engine turboprop during his training.

The documents cite a training instructor who said Renslow struggled to learn the Dash 8's flight management system, a critical computer. The records also say Renslow's abilities "picked up at the end."

Renslow reportedly had little hands-on experience with a stick-pusher — a critical piece of equipment used in emergencies. It automatically kicks in when a plane is about to stall, pointing the aircraft's nose down into a dive so it can pick up enough speed to allow the pilot to guide it to a recovery.

According to records, the captain put the stick-pusher in the wrong position when the plane began to nose dive. Renslow pulled back on the plane's control column, apparently trying to bring the aircraft out of the sudden dive by raising the nose up. Pushing forward to gain speed is the proper procedure.

NTSB investigator Lorenda Ward also said the captain had difficulty obtaining his credentials.

"The captain had four FAA certificate disapprovals. Three occurred before he was hired at Colgan and included disapproval for his private pilot instrument, his commercial pilot initial and his commercial multi-engine land," she said.

Pilots discussed lack of experience

The safety hearing is expected to focus on whether fatigue and inadequate pilot training contributed to the crash. 

In the transcripts, Renslow and his first officer, Rebecca Shaw, are shown discussing the amount of ice forming on the aircraft's wings.

"It's lots of ice," Shaw said.

"Oh yeah that's the most I've seen, most ice I've seen on the leading edges in a long time, in a while anyway I should say," Renslow replied.

The two also remarked how they were both hired by Colgan with less than 1,000 hours of flying time in the region.

"But, uh, as a matter of fact I got hired with about 625 hours here," Renslow said.

Shaw then commented how she "really wouldn't mind" getting more flying experience in the wintry U.S. northeast before trying to become a full captain with the airline.

"I've never seen icing conditions," Shaw said. "I've never deiced. 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 calls."

She added she would have "freaked out" if she were a captain and had "seen this much ice" and would have thought, "Oh my gosh, we were going to crash."

The transcript of the flight recordings ends with Renslow saying, "Jesus Christ," and "We're down," followed by the screams of his first officer.

NTSB investigators said in a March update of their probe into the crash that ice "had a minimal impact" on the plane's performance.

Mike Quimby, whose father-in-law was a passenger on the plane, said he's trying not to rush to judgment.

"But our gut feeling is there were a number of contributing factors," he said. "Think of it as a chain. If you take out any one of those links in the chain, this probably doesn't happen."

With files from The Associated Press