Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Experts say pilots' reaction doomed Flight 3407

Experts say pilots' reaction doomed Flight 3407
Upward Move Prevented Stall Recovery

By Michael Beebe

WASHINGTON — Capt. Marvin D. Renslow could have prevented the fatal plunge of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 had he lowered the nose of the aircraft, increased power and leveled the turboprop’s wings, experts testified on the first day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the Clarence Center crash.

Instead, Renslow, 47, a pilot who came to flying as a second career, appeared to act surprised when the aircraft’s stall warning came on and did the exact opposite of a proper stall recovery. He jerked the plane upward and caused it to spin out of control.

Both the chief test pilot for Bombardier’s Dash 8 Q400, who had performed more than 1,000 stall recoveries in the aircraft’s testing phase, and Colgan Air’s chief simulation supervisor testified that Renslow could have saved the aircraft.

And three officials with Colgan, the Continental subcontractor that operated the flight, testified at day’s end that both Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca L. Shaw showed a lack of what they called situational awareness. They were not paying attention, and the stall alarm caught them off-guard, the officials said.

Add to that the cockpit chatter between the two pilots below 10,000 feet — a violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations — and both pilots violating Colgan Air rules on off-duty time, and it was a grim day of testimony regarding the two pilots.

But the first vice president of the pilots union, the Airline Pilots Association, as well as Mary Schiavo, a former FAA executive who heads an aviation safety alliance, said that there was plenty of blame to go around.

“This hearing is focusing on training,” said Capt. Paul A. Rice of the pilots union. “Not on an individual or an individual group, it’s focusing on training.”

But even Schiavo, who has been critical of past investigations that seem to focus on pilot error, said she was dismayed when she read the transcript of Renslow and Shaw chatting in the cockpit while crucial flight information seemed to be ignored.

Dean Bandavanis, director of flight operations for Colgan, was more than dismayed.

“That crew was not ready to respond to a stall warning,” Bandavanis testified. “They kind of acted surprised.”

He was asked why he thought a Colgan Air crew, after the Buffalo accident, had a stall warning coming into the Burlington, Vt., airport but came out of it with no injury or accident, while Renslow and Shaw had the same thing happen and crashed.

“The violations of ‘sterile cockpit’ procedures, [failing] to obey the instruments and staying alert,” Bandavanis said. “That was the main difference between [Flight 3407] and the Burlington operation.”

Complete Buffalo News coverage of the crash of Flight 3407, including the days following the crash, the investigation and the lives of those who were lost.

A stall in aviation comes not when engines fail, but when wind flowing over the wings is halted, causing the plane to eventually crash if the pilot doesn’t correct the problem.

Wally Warren, who as the chief test pilot for Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of the twin-engine aircraft, did more than 1,000 stall procedures, was asked by safety board member Deborah A. P. Hersman, whether he thought that Renslow could have pulled out of the stall. Or, she asked, was he too low at 600 feet above sea level to have the aircraft pull out?

“Altitude has nothing to do with stall recovery,“ Warren answered.

“In my opinion, you could be at the altitude this plane was at, you could still lower the nose, increase the power and recover,” he said.

Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the safety board, asked the same question of Paul Pryor, who directs flight simulation training on the Q400 for Colgan.

“In this case, based on your professional knowledge and knowing the altitude of the aircraft, and the parameters it was operating in,” Rosenker asked him, “do you believe this was a recoverable stall?”

Pryor looked back at him and answered simply, “My opinion is yes.”

It was stunning testimony from both men as they essentially said Renslow could have righted the ship and saved the 50 lives the crash claimed.

The audience for the hearing, which included family members and friends of the crash victims, had already watched a three-dimensional animation showing a pristine white Colgan Air jet approaching Buffalo Niagara International Airport on that fateful night. Before she showed the animation, Lorenda Ward, the hearing officer and safety board investigator in charge, allowed a minute for families who could not bear to watch the recreation to leave the hearing room. Several people left.

The animation showed the final two minutes of Flight 3407’s descent toward Buffalo. It was a bird’s eye view, as if another plane had followed the Colgan aircraft before it crashed and burned.

Tuesday’s hearing also included testimony about Renslow, who commuted from Florida to his home base in Newark, N. J., of sleeping in the Colgan flight crew room, against regulations. Colgan said the company had no record of either pilot having an apartment or place to stay in Newark, where Flight 3407 originated.

Shaw, the records showed, violated company policy by flying from Washington State on the night before the flight, as a passenger on a FedEx plane.

She also had a cold, and the cockpit microphone on Flight 3407 picked up her continual sneezing.

Bandavanis, Colgan’s flight operations director, said Shaw could have called in sick because of her cold. And she could have called in fatigued, he said, because of her red-eye flight the night before.

Colgan allows pilots to take time off if fatigue builds up, but pilots say airline companies have other ways of making pilots pay for that time off.

The last witnesses, all Colgan employees, were asked about a pilot’s situational awareness, or knowing all the things they have to monitor and keep straight to have a successful flight.

“I’d like to take it down to the 30 seconds prior to the stall indicator,” said John E. “Jeb” Barrett, Colgan’s director of flight standards, “And it’s obvious, at that point, that throughout a lack of situational awareness, there is not any airspeed awareness. There’s no monitoring of the instruments — not by the pilot flying, or the pilot monitoring.”

Bandavanis, who seemed to take his pilots’ actions personally, told Rosenker, “A company can have the best [standard operating procedures], the best-trained pilots, the best supervision out there, but it all wrestles down to the integrity of the flight crew.

“And when I say integrity, sir, I mean doing the right thing when nobody’s watching.”

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