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Archive for Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Flight 3407’s last moments: Talk of ice, then a scream

May 13, 2009

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— Showing no alarm, the captain and his first officer chatted about the ice on their plane’s windshield and wings, making light of their shared concerns about flying in wintry weather as they sped toward Buffalo, N.Y., on the night of Feb. 12.

Minutes later, pilot Marvin Renslow said “Jesus Christ” and Rebecca Shaw screamed as Continental Connection Flight 3407 plunged to the ground, striking a house in a fiery crash. All 49 people aboard and one man on the ground were killed.

The haunting transcript of the plane’s final moments — preserved by the cockpit voice recorder — was released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board at the start of a three-day public hearing to examine safety issues raised by the crash.

Among those issues are whether Renslow and Shaw responded properly to warnings that the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop, was nearing a stall.

In response to questioning from board members, officials from Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental, acknowledged that the two apparently weren’t paying close attention to the aircraft’s instruments and failed to follow the airline’s procedures for handling an impeding stall in the final minutes of the flight.

The transcript

The NTSB’s investigation has indicated that ice on the wing was a precursor to the stall warning but was not severe enough to cause a crash.

About the time the two first remarked to each other about the ice, the plane was descending from 11,000 feet and had received permission from air traffic controllers to go as low as 4,000 feet in preparation for landing. Federal regulations prohibit nonessential cockpit conversations below 10,000 feet.

“It’s lots of ice,” Shaw said.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the most I’ve seen, most ice I’ve seen on the leading edges in a long time, in a while anyway, I should say,” Renslow replied.

Renslow then remarked that he’d flown about 625 hours in the region before he was hired for this job by Colgan.

Shaw replied: “I really wouldn’t mind going through a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain. ... I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any. I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’d’ve freaked out. I’d’ve have like seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we were going to crash.”’

“I would’ve been fine,” Renslow replied. “I would have survived it. There wasn’t, we never had to make decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to make but ... now I’m more comfortable.”

The crew then lowered the landing gear and adjusted the airplane’s flaps, but at 10:16.26 p.m. there was a sound similar to movement of the flap handle, according to the transcript, and Shaw says, “Uhhh.”

Less than a second later, there were sounds similar to the stick shaker — a warning transmitted through the control stick that the aircraft is nearing a stall. They lasted for 6.7 seconds. Then a horn sounded signaling the autopilot disconnecting, and that horn continued until the end of the recording.

Three seconds later, a click was followed by the sound of increased engine power, according to the transcript.

At 10:16.34.8, Renslow said, “Jesus Christ.”

Shaw said she has put the flaps up and asked if she should put the landing gear up. Renslow replied: “Gear up, oh, (expletive).”

As noise in the cockpit increased, Renslow said: “We’re down.”

Then the sound of a thump.

Shaw: “We (sound of scream).”

With that entry, at 10:16.52, the transcript ends.

Captain’s actions

NTSB documents indicate that after the stick shaker went off, Renslow increased air speed and pulled back on the control column in an apparent attempt to bring the plane’s nose up. Instead, the plane began to pitch and roll. Aviation experts said the proper response would be to push forward, pointing the nose down slightly or to keep level.

Within moments the plane’s stick pusher kicked in. The automatic safety system points the plane’s nose downward in a stall to build up enough speed so the plane can be guided to a recovery.

Asked whether a crew could have recovered from the stall experienced by Flight 3407, Paul Pryor — Colgan’s head of pilot training — replied simply: “Yes.”

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