Feds Probe Pilot Training, Behavior in Upstate New York Crash

By | May 13, 2009

The training and behavior of the pilot and first officer in the worst U.S. air crash in more than seven years are prominent on the agenda of an unusual three-day safety hearing that began yesterday.

All 49 people aboard Flight 3407 and one man on the ground were killed the night of Feb. 12 as the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York in icy conditions.

The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a hearing on safety issues that have arisen during its investigation a mere three months after the crash.

All four of the board’s members will be present, underscoring the seriousness of their concerns. The board hasn’t held such an “en banc” public hearing in more than five years.

A top concern is the training the flight’s captain, Marvin Renslow, received from Colgan Air, a regional airline based in Manassas, Va. The airline acknowledged Monday that Renslow didn’t receive hands-on training on the Dash 8’s stick pusher, one of the plane’s critical safety systems.

A stick pusher 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.

However, when Flight 3407’s stick pusher kicked in, Renslow pulled back on the plane’s control column, apparently trying to bring the aircraft out of the sudden dive by raising the nose. The plane then stalled, rolled over and plunged in a house.

Colgan has said the airline’s training for Dash 8 pilots conformed with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the aircraft manufacturer’s guidance.

Aviation experts, however, said there has long been a debate in the industry about whether FAA and air carriers put too much emphasis during pilot training on how to avoid a stall, neglecting practice in stall recovery.

Other issues include whether Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw violated “sterile cockpit” rules by conversing about nonessential matters and thus failed to notice that the plane had slowed to an unsafe speed until moments before it plunged into a dive.

The crash was the deadliest U.S. aviation accident since American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a Queens neighborhood shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 12, 2001. All 260 people aboard and five on the ground were killed.

Colgan, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines Corp. of Memphis, Tenn., operates more than 350 daily flights to 53 cities in 15 states. Colgan Air employs more than 1,300 people and transported nearly 2.5 million passengers in 2008.

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