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Evidence in Buffalo Plane Crash Points to Ice as a Cause

Feb 17, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

As the investigation into the crash of Continental Flight 3407 continues to unfold, federal investigators are seeing more evidence that ice, not mechanical failure, caused the accident that killed all 49 passengers and crew and one person on the ground.

According Newsday, investigators are saying that not only does the evidence point to wing icing as playing a critical role in the crash, but that another pilot flying on the same night in western New York also reported dangerous icing conditions.  Nothing indicates that the plane—a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop—experienced engine problems before it crashed, said the Associated Press (AP).

Steven Chealander, of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spoke at a news briefing yesterday and said, "Everything that's found thus far on the engine is consistent with high-powered flight," quoted Newsday.  Chealander also discussed how the plane "entered the ground, how much it dug itself in, the angles of the blades."  The doomed flight crew is known to have reported icing on the windshield as the aircraft approached the airport; approximately one minute later, the craft “stalled violently and then fell to the ground from 1,800 feet in less than 26 seconds,” said Newsday.

Chealander also mentioned that within a-half hour of Flight 3407 experiencing its final difficulties, another Colgan Airlines turboprop flight reported "moderate" icing and in Dunkirk, New York, which is about 50 miles south of the crash site, yet another crew reported “severe icing," which is not only the most dangerous icing category, but one in which pilots are trained to avoid, reported Newsday.  The AP is reporting that about half of the crash wreckage has been removed and that crews are hoping to have the remainder removed prior to Wednesday, when a snowstorm is expected in that area.

The crash has been surrounded in controversy because the plane was on autopilot as it descended.  When it comes to icing conditions and flying on autopilot, the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are in disagreement, points out Newsday.  The NTSB tells pilots to fly manually—not on autopilot—in all ice conditions, even those in which just "thin amounts of ice" are present, while the FAA maintains that aircraft are safe when flying on autopilot in "light to moderate icing," reports Newsday.  A change to this FAA icing certification standard is one of the top NTSB issues, landing on its "most wanted" safety recommendations list, said Newsday.

The conflicting recommendations have caused considerable debate on planes flying on autopilot in icy conditions, said the Christian Science Monitor, which explained that some experts feeling that autopilot prevents pilots from understanding the severity of icing conditions.  It is now believed that it was the ice that caused the plane to pitch and rock dangerously in the immediate moments before crashing into a house in suburban Buffalo.

New York’s Senator Charles Schumer told Newsday that he spoke to Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary, to discuss the issue and said LaHood assured him that the FAA Administrator—who remains unnamed—"will be addressing this issue immediately."

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