Despite promises, key safety reforms lag a year after New York plane crash that killed 50

By Joan Lowy, AP
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Safety reforms lag a year after NY plane crash

WASHINGTON — The head of a federal safety panel said Tuesday the pilots of a regional airliner that crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., nearly a year ago made critical errors showing “complacency and confusion that resulted in catastrophe.”

National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman said safety issues raised by the accident go beyond the mistakes that caused the crash. The board is meeting to determine the probable cause and make safety recommendations following the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by regional air carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va.

The crash is considered one of the most significant accidents in recent years because it revealed what some safety experts and pilots unions say is a safety gap between major airlines and the regional carriers. Among the concerns raised by the accident is whether pilots with low-fare airlines are vulnerable to fatigue, long-distance commutes and inadequate training.

On Feb. 12, 2009, Flight 3407 was approaching Buffalo-Niagara International Airport when the twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall and dove into a house. All 49 people aboard and one man in the house were killed.

Investigators pinned the cause of the crash primarily on errors by the pilots. They said Captain Marvin Renslow should have been able to recover from the stall if he had taken the correct actions, but that he did the opposite of what he should have done.

In the final seconds of the flight, two pieces of safety equipment activated — a stick shaker to alert the crew their plane was nearing a stall and a stick pusher that points a plane’s nose down so it can recover speed, investigators said. The correct response to both situations would have been to push forward on the control column to increase speed, they said.

But Renslow pulled back on the stick shaker, investigators said. When the plane stalled and the pusher activated, and then reactivated two more times, Renslow again pulled back all three times.

“It wasn’t a split-second thing,” NTSB safety investigator Roger Cox said. “I think there was time to evaluate the situation and intitiate a recovery, but I can’t give you a number of seconds”

Seventy percent of pilots who had experienced the stick-pusher activation in training responded by pulling back instead of pushing forward — the opposite of the correct response — even though they knew ahead of time to expect a stall, investigators said.

The first officer, Rebecca Shaw, 24, should have stepped in to push the plane’s nose down herself when Renslow responded improperly, but she may not have because she was a relatively inexperienced pilot, investigators said.

Shaw, 24, had earned less than $16,000 the previous year, which may have been why she lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted across the country overnight to Newark, N.J., to make Flight 3407. She felt sick but didn’t want to pull out of the trip because she had already traveled so far, according to a cockpit voice recorder transcript.

It’s not clear how much sleep either pilot received the night before the flight.

Federal regulators and lawmakers promised swift action after the Feb. 12, 2009 accident, but nearly a year later, key safety reforms haven’t been implemented.

Since then, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt has persuaded regional airlines to make a series of voluntary safety improvements. FAA has also increased inspections of their pilot training programs. But the agency is still drafting regulations to address the most critical safety issues raised by the accident. Final action is at least months away, and perhaps even years.

Hersman said the NTSB board will follow up with a forum this spring on pilot and air traffic controller professionalism and with another forum on partnerships between major airlines and regional carriers, which increasingly handle the airlines’ short haul-flights.

Karen Eckert of Williamsville, N.Y., whose sister Beverly Eckert was killed in the crash, said the victims’ families are frustrated by the slow pace of the federal response to the crash. She noted, for example, that an earlier version of the crew-training proposal gave airlines five years from the proposal’s effective date to comply.

“That’s a very long time when there are lives that can be lost,” she said.

On Capitol Hill, the House passed legislation aimed at forcing FAA to strengthen regulations. There’s no disagreement over the need for legislation, but action has been slowed by unrelated Senate disputes. It remains unclear when a bill might be enacted.

“Here we are, almost a year later, and fundamentally nothing has changed in terms of the conditions that caused that accident,” said former NTSB board member Kitty Higgins. “The only thing that has changed is public awareness.”

The last six fatal domestic airline accidents involved regional carriers. The NTSB has cited pilot performance as a factor in three of those accidents.

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