Buffalo-Bound Continental Plane on Autopilot at Time of CrashFeb 16, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Weather conditions, iced wings, a plane on autopilot, and conflicting signals from two federal agencies all may have contributed to the perfect storm that resulted in the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 and the deaths of all 49 on board and one person on the ground.
Newsday is reporting that the Continental Connection Flight was on autopilot just seconds before it crashed near Buffalo, New York, citing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials. Apparently the crew made its decision to engage autopilot amid conflicting signals about the use of that technology in icy conditions, which were received from two federal agencies, said Newsday. The autopilot was disengaged 26 seconds prior to the crash, which was preceded by the plane pitching “wildly” at sharp angles and then dropping 800 feet in five seconds, added Newsday. The LA Times reported that the NTSB recommends flying manually in severely icy weather.
Buffalo News reported that the plane’s landing gear were engaged one minute prior to the crash and that about 20 seconds later, the plane experienced what it described as “severe pitch and roll,” which occurred when the plane was over 2,000 feet in the air. Pitch and roll refers to when a plane experiences “violent” horizontal and vertical motions. Chealander said premlinary findings indicate that the crew described visibility at just three miles and that snow and mist were in the atmosphere, said Buffalo News. As the flight descended, the crew described “hazy conditions” and asked the control tower for permission to drop to 12,000 then 11,000 feet to avoid the dangerous conditions, said Buffalo News.
The plane, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop’s flight recorder indicates sharp pitching and severe dropping that would have, according to the NTSB’s Steven R. Chealander, caused those on board to experience G-Force activity at twice what is considered normal, said Newsday. Chealander is the NTSB member overseeing this investigation. Contintental Airlines’ Bombardier Q400 is a Colgan Airlines commuter plane.
Buffalo News reported that the plane’s flight crew experienced “significant icing” in its approach to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, saying that "The crew discussed significant ice build-up—ice on the windshield and leading edges of the wings," according to Chealander. The plane crashed into a home in Clarence Center.
Chealander explained that a finding had not been reached regarding the ice build-up’s role, but said, "Significant ice build-up is an aerodynamic impediment. Airplanes are built with wings that are shaped a certain way and ice can change the shape," Buffalo News quoted. According to NTSB’s initial review of black box data and crew discussions, the plane’s anti-icing system had been activated, said Buffalo News. Thursday’s crash, said Buffalo News, is the deadliest since the 2001 American Airlines crash that devastated a Queens neighborhood, killing all 260 on board and five others on the ground.
Ice forming on areas on a plane, such as the wings, can cause planes to lose control, especially on smaller planes, such as the one involved in Thursday’s accident, reported USA Today, which noted that aviation regulators have not moved quickly enough on implementing improvements on ice prevention, despite suggestions from experts. Some, such as Bernard Loeb, a retiree from the NTSB and one who worked for stiffer icing rules met with arguments from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulators who claimed that planes are adequately protected from icing. In the last decade, said USA Today, the NTSB discovered that icing prevention rules are not always adequate; also, a number of NTSB icing-related recommendations have been ignored by the FAA.
Thursday’s crash also resulted in fire damage and evacuation of many nearby homes and caused injuries to two volunteer firefighters, said Buffalo News. Now, said the LA Times, residents are up in arms over evacuations, street closures, and the media.