Buffalo crash probe focuses on pilot fatigue, low pay

The co-pilot of a deadly commuter airplane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year took a cross-country red-eye flight the night before to get to her $16,000 US-a-year job in Newark, a public hearing into the crash was told Wednesday.

First officer lived with parents in Seattle, commuted to fly out of Newark

The co-pilot of a deadly commuter airplane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year took a cross-country red-eye flight the night before to get to her $16,000 US-a-year  job in Newark, a public hearing into the crash was told Wednesday.

In this combo photo, Capt. Marvin Renslow of Lutz, Fla., left, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw of Maple Valley, Wash., are shown. Renslow was piloting Continental Flight 3407, and Shaw was the co-pilot of the plane, which crashed Feb. 12. ((Jason Peregrine/Central Washington University/Seattle Times/Associated Press))

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry in Washington focused its attention on pilot fatigue as a possible contributing factor to the crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407, which killed all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.

Co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, was working out of Newark Liberty International Airport and had complained about having a cold on the day of the Feb. 12 crash.

The night before the crash, she flew overnight as a passenger from Seattle, investigators told the hearing. The trip required her to change planes in Memphis en route to Newark.

In at times heated exchanges with airline officials during Wednesday's proceedings, board members suggested Shaw's limited salary might have prevented her from living closer to the city where she worked and led her to commute from the Seattle area, where she lived with her parents.

Officials with Continental's regional carrier, Colgan Air Inc., acknowledged at the hearing that Shaw was paid about $23 an hour and had a salary of $16,254, although she could have earned more if she worked extra hours.

She previously had a second job working in a coffee shop.

The salary of the pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, who commuted from his home in Florida, was not disclosed during the proceedings. But Colgan said the average salary for its pilots is around $55,000.

The airline performed a study following the crash that showed some of its pilots live on opposite coasts from the airports where they are based, but most working pilots lived east of the Mississippi River,  Daniel Morgan, Colgan's vice-president, safety and compliance, told board members.

But Morgan added the airline industry has a long-standing tradition of pilots making their own arrangements to live closer to their work bases, including sharing rooms.

"I expect them to follow them and do what others have done," Morgan said.

Pilots surprised by stall warning: airline

Previous testimony at the hearing indicates Renslow and Shaw made several fundamental mistakes as Flight 3407 approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport in wintry weather.

The aircraft experienced an aerodynamic stall, rolled over and crashed into a house in the Buffalo-area town of Clarence Center.

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

Colgan officials acknowledged in response to board members' questions that Renslow and Shaw weren't paying close attention to the plane's instruments and were surprised by a stall warning. Nor did they follow the aircraft's procedures for responding to a stall.

The NTSB hearing previously heard testimony over how Renslow struggled with the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier twin-engine turboprop's flight operating system during his training.

Renslow reportedly had little hands-on experience with a stick-pusher — a critical component in a system 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 flight data records recovered from the crash, 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.

Released transcripts of cabin recordings also show both pilots discussing their lack of experience flying in wintry conditions of the U.S. Northeast. In the transcripts, Shaw also said she considered calling in sick the day of the crash.

Hudson River hero pilot expressed concern

Just over 10 days after the crash, the pilot who guided his disabled passenger jet to a safe splash landing in New York's Hudson River in January told a U.S. congressional aviation committee the "untenable financial situation" for pilots and their families leaves him "worried about the future of the profession."

Sullenberger, who was hailed as a hero for his calm actions on Jan. 15 as pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, warned of "negative consequences" to the safety of the industry without experienced pilots, who have been forced to accept massive salary and pension cuts from airline companies focused on trimming costs. 

"I do not know a single, professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps," Sullenberger told the committee at the time.

With files from The Associated Press