Buffalo crash likely pilot error: investigators

U.S. federal safety officials say pilot error was the probable cause of an airline crash into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., last year.

Pilot error was the probable cause of an airline crash into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., last year, but the accident's root problems extend far beyond a single event, a federal safety panel said Tuesday.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, said the accident casts doubt on whether or not regional airlines are held to the same level of safety as are major airlines, and she promised the board will pursue the issue.

She also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for taking too long to address safety problems raised by the crash, saying the same issues have turned up before.

"Today is Groundhog Day, and I feel like we are in that movie," Hersman said, referring to the 1993 Bill Murray movie about a Pittsburgh weatherman who repeatedly lives through the same day.

"We have made recommendations time after time after time. They haven't been heeded by the FAA."

The FAA said in a statement that it has driven significant improvements in pilot professionalism, training and background checks in the past year. The agency said it will soon propose new rules to prevent pilot fatigue, further improve training and increase the qualifications required to be an airline pilot.

The three-member board agreed unanimously that an "inappropriate response" by the captain of Continental Connection Flight 3407 to a key piece of safety equipment caused the crash. The board also said an incorrect airspeed entered into the plane's computers by the flight's first officer and the air carrier's inadequate procedures and training for entering airspeeds for freezing weather were contributing factors.

The board discussed issuing more than 20 safety recommendations as a result of the accident.

Hersman praised FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt for initiating regulation changes in response to the crash on Feb. 12, 2009, when the plane dove into a house, killing all 49 people aboard and one man in the house. But Hersman said Babbitt has been unable so far to push reforms "across the finish line" and that congressional action may be needed.

Flight 3407, operated for Continental Airlines by Colgan Air Inc., was approaching Buffalo-Niagara International Airport when the twin-engine Bombardier turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall and went into a dive. The board said Capt. Marvin Renslow should have been able to recover from the stall but that he did the opposite of what he should have done.

In the final seconds

In the final seconds of the flight, two pieces of safety equipment activated — a stick shaker to alert the crew their plane was nearing a stall and a stick pusher that points a plane's nose down so it can recover speed, investigators said. The correct response to both situations would have been to push forward on the control column to increase speed, they said.

But Renslow pulled back on the stick shaker, investigators said. When the plane stalled and the pusher activated, Renslow again pulled back three times.

"It wasn't a split-second thing," NTSB safety investigator Roger Cox said. "I think there was time to evaluate the situation and initiate a recovery, but I can't give you a number of seconds."

Seventy-five per cent of pilots who had experienced the stick-pusher activation in training also responded by pulling back instead of pushing forward, even though they knew ahead of time to expect a stall, investigators said.

The first officer, Rebecca Shaw, 24, should have stepped in to push the plane's nose down herself when Renslow, 47, responded improperly, but she may not have because she was a relatively inexperienced pilot, investigators said.

Shaw commuted across the country overnight to Newark, N.J., to make Flight 3407. It's not clear how much sleep either pilot received the night before the flight, but investigators said both pilots likely were suffering from fatigue.

Hersman wanted to list fatigue as a contributing factor to the crash. The board's other two members declined, saying it couldn't conclusively be determined if fatigue had impaired the pilots' performance.

Shaw erred at the beginning of the flight by programming an ordinary airspeed into the plane's computer, rather than the higher airspeed needed for freezing weather, investigators said. The plane didn't accumulate enough ice on the wings to stall, but the mix-up on speeds caused the stick shaker to warn of a stall even though one wasn't actually imminent.

Renslow's pull-back response, however, created a stall, the board said.

Both pilots violated rules against non-essential conversation during flight below 10,000 feet, which likely distracted them at a key moment, the board said.

Colgan's pilot training program was also criticized for not giving Renslow remedial attention despite his failures on several tests of piloting skill and for not emphasizing procedures for recovering from a full stall, including how to respond to the stick pusher.

Colgan said in a statement that the pilots were properly trained in how to recover from a stall.

"We have taken a number of important and specific steps to further enhance all of our training and hiring programs," the statement said.