WASHINGTON - Evidence laid out by safety investigators Tuesday pins the cause of an airline crash into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., last year on errors by the pilots, but officials said the root problems extend far beyond a single event.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the accident casts doubt on whether regional airlines are held to the same level of safety as are major airlines, and she promised the board will pursue the issue. She also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for taking too long to address safety problems raised by the investigation, saying the same issues have turned up before.
"Today is Groundhog Day, and I feel like we are in that movie," Hersman said, referring to the 1993 Bill Murray movie about a Pittsburgh weatherman who repeatedly lives through the same day. "We have made recommendations time after time after time. They haven't been heeded by the FAA."
FAA officials didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hersman praised FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt for initiating regulation changes in response to the crash on Feb. 12, 2009, when a Bombardier (TSX:BBD.B) Dash 8-Q400 dove into a house, killiing all 49 people aboard and one man in the house. But Hersman said Babbitt has been unable so far to push reforms "across the finish" and that congressional action may be needed.
The flight, Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by regional air carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, was approaching Buffalo-Niagara International Airport when the twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall and went into a dive. Investigators said Captain Marvin Renslow should have been able to recover from the stall 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, Renslow again pulled back 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 initiate a recovery, but I can't give you a number of seconds."
Seventy-five per cent of pilots who had experienced the stick-pusher activation in training also responded by pulling back instead of pushing forward, 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 travelled so far, according to a cockpit voice recorder transcript.
It's not clear how much sleep either pilot received the night before the flight.
Shaw also erred at the beginning of the flight by programming an ordinary airspeed into the plane's computer, rather than the higher airspeed needed for freezing weather, investigators said. The plane didn't accumulate enough ice on the wings to stall, but the mix-up on speeds caused the stick shaker to warn of a stall even though one wasn't actually imminent.
Renslow's pull-back response, however, created a stall.
Shaw also violated FAA guidance by sending a text message about five minutes before takeoff from Newark's Liberty International Airport, and both pilots violated rules against nonessential conversation during flight below 10,000 feet.
Colgan's pilot training program was also criticized.
Since the accident, Babbitt has persuaded regional airlines to make a series of voluntary safety improvements. FAA has also increased inspections of its pilot training programs. But the agency is still drafting regulations to address the most critical safety issues raised by the accident. Final action is months or perhaps years away.
The last six deadly domestic airline accidents involved regional carriers. The NTSB has cited pilot performance as a factor in three of those accidents.
Regional airlines account for about half of all domestic departures and about one-quarter of the passengers. They are the only scheduled service to about 440 communities.