World

Pilot in Buffalo crash didn't see stall signs soon enough: expert

The pilot of a commuter airplane involved in a deadly crash near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year did not appear to notice the twin-engine turboprop plane had slowed to a dangerously low speed until it was too late, a flight expert told a public inquiry into the crash on Thursday.

Crew 'went from complacency to catastrophe in 20 seconds': NTSB member

The pilot of a commuter airplane involved in a deadly crash near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year did not appear to notice the twin-engine turboprop plane had slowed to a dangerously low speed until it was too late, a flight expert told a public inquiry into the crash on Thursday.

The final day of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry in Washington focused its attention on fatigue, distraction and inadequate training as possible contributing factors to mistakes made by the pilot in the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407.

During his testimony Thursday, Robert Key Dismukes told board members that flight data and transcripts of cockpit recordings show Capt. Marvin Renslow failed to realize the plane was about to stall as it approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport in wintry weather.

"I don't see any evidence he knew the situation he was in," said Dismukes, a pilot and scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center who has spent decades studying fields such as pilot attention and cockpit distractions.

The Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall, rolled over and crashed into a house in the Buffalo-area town of Clarence Center, killing all 49 people aboard and one person inside the house. One Canadian was among the victims.

"I think the crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 20 seconds," Deborah Hersman, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said while questioning Dismukes.

Some aircraft already have audible warning systems to alert pilots when the aircraft slows too much, but not the Q400, which has a stick-shaker to indicate when the aircraft is on the verge of stalling.

Dismukes said he agreed with Hersman's suggestion that a "fire alarm" system to indicate when a plane is rapidly losing speed would make sense to prevent similar tragedies from unfolding in the future.

"You'd want a very distinctive alert, but not one that is not so dramatic," he said. "It's well worth looking at." 

Pilot had 'low-time' captaining aircraft type

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 nosedive.

NASA'S Dismukes said repeated training is the only way for pilots to learn to respond to such events properly. He noted Renslow logged just 109 hours as captain in the Q400 and earned most of his flight time in a similar, but different type of aircraft.

"I'm hesitant to make a judgment, but it was obvious he was low-time in this aircraft in the captain's seat," he said.

But Dismukes conceded it was "conceivable" that Renslow might have mistaken the situation for a tail stall, which requires the pilot to pull back on the control to recover.

The inquiry has heard Renslow failed three proficiency checks on general aviation aircraft administered by federal aviation officials. Representatives from the aircraft's operator, Colgan Air Inc., have said Renslow did not fully disclose the failures when he applied for his job.

The airline says it has boosted its minimum requirement for new pilots to 1,000 hours of flight experience.  

Released transcripts of cabin recordings of the moments before the stall also show Renslow and his first officer, Rebecca Shaw, casually chatting about their lack of experience flying in wintry conditions of the U.S. Northeast. In the transcripts, Shaw also said she felt congested and considered calling in sick the day of the crash.

The NTSB hearing has already heard testimony that Renslow commuted from his home near Tampa to fly out of Newark, while Shaw took a cross-country red-eye flight the night before the crash to get to her $16,000 US-a-year job.

The airline acknowledged that some of its pilots commute from cities across the United States to their workbases, but are expected to show up rested and ready to perform their duties.

Corrections

  • The correct procedure for a pilot to recover from a tail stall is to pull back on the control, not push forward, as was initially reported.
    May 15, 2009 6:59 AM ET

With files from The Associated Press

now