Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fatal folly: Pilot in deadly Buffalo plane crash was unfit to fly

Fatal folly: Pilot in deadly Buffalo plane crash was unfit to fly

Wednesday, May 13th 2009, 4:00 AM

When you have a pilot who got his license at 14, flew crop dusters at 15, served in the Air Force and flew F-4 Phantom fighters, all before becoming an airline captain, you end up with 155 people surviving an emergency landing in the Hudson.

When you have a pilot who passed through four careers before attending an aviation academy for eight months, who repeatedly flunked flight tests, whose first airline job paid so little he moonlighted at a supermarket, you end up with a plane crash that kills 50 people.

The gaping differences between USAir Flight 1549 Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and Colgan Air Flight 3407 Capt. Marvin Renslow point to a severe degradation in the quality of commercial aviation personnel.

In decades past, airlines had fleets of large jets and relied on spit-shined ex-military officers to fly them. Now, the big carriers farm out many flights to commuter or regional outfits that fly smaller planes and pay pilots as little as $19,000 a year.

As devalued as the work is, the jobs still draw eager young people, as well as career-changers like Renslow, who was 45 when Colgan hired him. In his case, the adage that you get what you pay for came tragically true.

By the time he took the controls on the Feb. 12 Newark-to-Buffalo flight, he'd failed tests for his instrument, commercial, multiengine and air transport pilot ratings. He'd also flunked two proficiency checks with Colgan.

The plane began to ice up as Renslow was making a landing approach. First officer Rebecca Shaw, 24, said on the flight recorder that she didn't yet feel competent to captain an iced-over plane. Renslow wasn't up to it either, though there was not enough ice to severely hamper its performance.

When the turboprop's speed fell, causing a stall, he made the wrong move with his yoke. The plane whirled out of control and into a house.

Testifying before Congress after the Miracle in the Hudson, Sullenberger said he didn't know of a single airline pilot who would recommend the profession to his or her children. That's terrifying. How many more Marvin Renslows are up there?

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