Buffalo Plane Crash Hearing Witness Points to Flaw in Stall Warning System

An investigative panel is looking into the <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/airplane_accidents">fatal Continental Flight 3407

crash that killed all 49 crew and passengers and one resident on the ground in Buffalo on February 12. The Chicago Tribune reported that investigators told the panel that an early-warning alarm might have alerted the crew to the drop in speed that preceded the crash. The plane involved was a Colgan Air-operated Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 turboprop.

According to Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the stall-warning system currently in place—which “violently shakes the pilot’s control stick”—is activated too late into a dangerous situation, “I think this crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 20 seconds,” Hersman said. “The room is on fire at that point,” she added, quoted the Chicago Tribune. The stick pushes forward in such situations to dive the plane and pick up speed, but pilot Martin Renslow pulled up, which is the reverse of what pilots are taught, noted CBS in an earlier report, which worsened the stall.

It has long been speculated that the plane likely dropped to an unsafe slow speed, losing critical lift in its final landing approach. The onboard stall-warning system alerted the pilot and automatically activated the “stick pusher,” a device in which the control column is pushed forward to angle the plane’s nose down to regain speed. It was at this moment that pilot error might have occurred and when the pilot acted against established protocols, which call for pushing forward and lowering the nose to escape a stall. Instead, Renslow pulled back on the controls and added power, moves that resulted in the flight’s fatal end. By attempting to raise the nose and maintaining controls, the pilot likely slowed the plane to a dangerous level in which an aerodynamic stall would have been guaranteed.

Key Dismukes, a NASA scientist and cockpit-safety expert agreed with Hersman, reported the Chicago Tribune, and pointed to evidence from the aircraft’s voice data recorder that Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw were “distracted.” In a report by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, it said that the transcripts revealed the “crew engaged in a prolonged chit-chat as the plane descended from cruise altitude and then prepared to land,” a violation of “basic aviation rules,” in which conversations about nonflight issues during certain flight phases is prohibited. Under the “sterile cockpit rule,” pilots on commercial flights are banned from “extraneous conversations, especially when flying under 10,000 feet, said the Journal. The New York Daily News also reported earlier this week that, according to federal officials, “their own idle” cockpit “chatter” likely distracted the pilot and co-pilot.

Rory Kay, a safety expert with the Air Line Pilots Association told the panel that Renslow and Shaw’s “casual conversation” in the plane’s final descent added to the distraction, saying, “When something is going on in the cockpit that requires both pilots to be tuned in and have full situational awareness … if they’re talking about anything other than the operation at hand, that is problematic,” quoted the Chicago Tribune.

To compound matters, according to the Associated Press, co-pilot Rebecca Shaw’s health and state of mind on the day of the flight are in question. She might have been too tired to fly, but did not alert Colgan of her exhaustion; was a passenger on a red eye the night before; and was sick with a cold and congestion. The Chicago Tribune also sited fatigue, reporting that the NTSB found Renslow and Shaw received little to no sleep the night before due to long-distance commutes. Hersman pointed out that some regional pilots are poorly compensated and some airline operator relocation packages force crew to commute great distances—such as was the case with Renslow and Shaw—because they cannot afford to live close to their home base, said the Chicago Tribune.

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