Male pilot and female co-pilot chatted as plane built up ice on its wings

If it weren’t for the fact that it ended in the horrible deaths of 49 human beings, the story would read like a comedy sketch: “Oh, wow, like, ice!” The New York Post’s story links to a of the pilots’ chatty conversation on the edge of death—their own death and that of all their passengers’. (Here is Part I and Part II of the transcript.)

May 13, 2009

The two pilots flying a doomed Buffalo-bound commuter plane were so busy flirting and chatting about their lives, relationships and career goals that when ice built up on their wings and windshield, it became just another topic of conversation.


“I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never de-iced,” said First Officer Rebecca Shaw, 24, according to a transcript released yesterday at a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board.

She said she was happy to be second in command on the Dash 8 turboprop because she was glad “I don’t have to … make those kind of calls. You know, I’d have freaked out. I’d have, like, seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’re going to crash.’ “

At that point, the plane was at 2,300 feet and only minutes from disaster.

The pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, said, “That’s the most [ice] I’ve seen on the leading edges [of the wings] in a long time. In a while, anyway, I should say.”

Then, he continued to regale her with tales from his short, undistinguished, career during the Newark-to-Buffalo Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12.

Renslow said he had flown a mere 625 hours in the northeast before Colgan Air, the plane’s owner, hired him.

He chatted about some icing he’d once seen in West Virginia and Florida.

Four minutes later, the pilots made their biggest mistake—responding in the worst possible way to a warning that the plane was about to stall.

The automated “stick shaker” engaged, pushing the nose down so the plane could gain speed and keep flying.

The pilots overrode the system and pulled the nose up.

The plane flipped and plunged to the ground outside Buffalo in a ball of flames, killing all 49 people aboard and one person in a house.

Renslow’s last words were, “Jesus Christ,” then, “We’re down.” Shaw said “We’re—” and then screamed.

An aeronautical stall occurs when the air below the wings can’t support the weight of a plane. That happens when the plane is going too slow, when the wings are at a very acute angle, or when the wings are deformed by ice. Pilots are taught that pointing the nose down allows the plane to gain speed, gaining the pilot time to pull out of the stall.

Colgan Air acknowledged that Renslow’s training didn’t include how to handle the automatic stick-shaker system.

One training instructor told investigators that Renslow was “slow learning” on the Dash 8 but his abilities “picked up at the end.”

“Situational awareness was not where it belonged” during the flight, said Darrell Mitchell, Colgan’s director of training.

And that was the case for most of the flight.

Renslow drew laughter from Shaw with flirty comments like “Whee! This is fun,” during takeoff, and a warning not to be “dyslexic” when getting orders from air traffic control. He also mimicked accents of southern controllers.

At another point, Shaw quipped, “I’m assuming we’re only going to land once.”

Throughout the flight, Renslow and Shaw appeared to violate the “sterile cockpit” rule, which forbids all extraneous conversation to keep pilots focused on their tasks.

About two dozen anguished relatives of the victims attended the hearings in Washington, as others watched a telecast in Buffalo.

“You know there’s going to be a lot of things you don’t want to hear, but you just listen and learn,” said Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, 30, was killed on her way to a wedding.

Meanwhile, it was learned that:

* Renslow failed five certifi cation tests since 2005, when he became a pilot. “If you have two in a career spread across 30 years, that’s a lot,” said Jerry Skinner, an attorney with the Nolan Law Group, which specializes in aviation cases. He is not involved in any Flight 3407 litigation.

* Shaw may have been in no shape to fly. She had just arrived in Newark that morning on a redeye from Seattle.

Violating Colgan policy, Shaw decided to catch up on her sleep in the crew break room. FedEx pilot Jeffrey Kern told investigators that she said would nap on a new leather sofa “with her name on it.”

[end of Post article]

- end of initial entry -

Paul Nachman writes:

The airlines are a nutty business. From an article about the commuter airliner out of Newark that crashed shortly before it was to land in Buffalo, emphases added:

Fatigue is also an issue. Both pilots commuted to Newark, N.J., to make the flight—Renslow from his home near Tampa, Fla., and Shaw from her home near Seattle. Shaw also complained about congestion and may have been suffering from a cold.

Can you imagine even taking a flight from Tampa, never mind Seattle, with all of the time and discomfort involved, in order to pilot a commuter plane on a, I’ll guess, 60 or at most 90 minute flight from Newark to Buffalo? (Of course, there were likely subsequent flight segments on those pilots’ dockets before they’d deadhead back home, in the same uncomfortable manner, but still …)

Gary Moe writes:

Pilot inattention again. Perhaps you remember the crash of PSA 182 in San Diego in 1978—it may be that 30 years ago there was no sterile cockpit rule, but the cockpit crew were talking about completely unrelated stuff even after they’d been warned about other traffic in the area. CVR transcripts have the crew expressing confusion as to the position of the Cessna just before they crashed into it. The NTSB report did find some fault with the controllers, but had the crew been paying closer attention the crash might have been avoided. There were also accusations made later by a PSA captain that “crew fatigue,” i.e. slowed reaction times owing to the crew being hungover, may have contributed to the crash as well.

Bjorn (who is a private pilot) writes:

The pilots in the Buffalo crash were committing one of the most fatal mistakes in instrument flight, that of NOT monitoring their flight instruments. At all times, but more importantly at night and under weather conditions that in their case was producing ice (clearly they were flying in clouds, ie instrument conditions) the all –important task of monitoring the airspeed must have been entirely ignored. The lack of airspeed, through the reduction of power and the extending of flaps and wheels, caused the aircraft to slow down below its stall speed—this is clearly fatal.

Other observations—both flaps and wheels were extended prior to the aircraft capturing the localizer for the instrument landing procedure, another set of questionable procedures and further causing the slowing down of the aircraft; and why were the de-icing equipment not turned on when ice was observed on the wings, another possible factor involved in raising the stall speed of the aircraft.

All commentators seem to focus on the pilot’s wrongful action when the stick shaker kicked in. However, the plane may already have become doomed when both pilots allowed the plane to slow down, providing inadequate airspeed, the real cause of the stall.

This is not a training issue—this is pure and simple inadequate piloting skills under instrument conditions. Clearly lack of piloting skills is also evident in the chit-chatting of both pilots, neither of whom belonged in a commercial cockpit.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 13, 2009 10:31 AM | Send

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