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Pilot Error Likely to Blame in Buffalo Plane Crash

Mar 26, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Federal investigators have been analyzing the events leading up to the Buffalo, New York plane crash that killed 50 people in February, and are specifically looking at pilot training and the pilot’s responses in his final moments.  Now, according to CNN, the crew might be to blame in its handling of the plane’s stall.

On February 12, the Continental Connection Flight 3407—a Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400—crashed into a home near the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, killing all 49 passengers and crew and one man in the house.

Apparently, the crew pulled back on the plane’s control, worsening the stall situation, said CNN citing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and information it received from a veteran pilot.

According to investigators, said FoxNews in a report last month, the plane likely dropped to an unsafe slow speed, losing critical lift in its final landing approach.  The onboard stall-warning systems both alerted the pilot and automatically activated the “stick pusher,” a device in which the control column is pushed forward to angle the plane’s nose down to regain speed.  It was at this moment that pilot error might have occurred and when the pilot acted against established protocols, which call for pushing forward and lowering the nose to escape a stall.  Instead, said FoxNews, the pilot pulled back on the controls and added power, moves that resulted in the flight’s fatal end.  By attempting to raise the nose and maintaining controls, the pilot might have slowed the plane to a dangerous level in which an aerodynamic stall would have been guaranteed, said the Buffalo News last month.

The NTSB has not confirmed the crash’s cause, said CNN, pointing out that the cockpit voice recorder revealed that the pilot and his first officer discussed “significant” ice buildup that was forming on the plane’s windshield and wings.  While such buildup can present problems, it has not been found to have any significant impact on this case, said CNN, according to the NTSB.  Also, the investigation has not revealed any aircraft system failure and the NTSB reported that the “stick shaker,” or stall warning device, was also operating normally.  According to a statement issued by NTSB acting chairman, Mark Rosenker, "The circumstances of the crash have raised several issues that go well beyond the widely discussed matter of airframe icing."

Regarding the stall warning, "What you don't want to do is aggravate the situation," said the veteran pilot who was speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity because he had not sought approval from his airline to speak on the matter. "By pulling it up without adding power, you're aggravating the situation," the pilot added.

The NTSB plans on investigating, among other items, "stall recovery training."  Doug Moss, a United Air Lines pilot and aerospace consultant, said the NTSB "is really looking at" this training, in particular, adding that, "It's easy to build a lot of experience in airline flying without ever getting close to the edges of the envelope," quoted CNN.

CNN noted that the NTSB confirmed that flight crew toxicology reports were negative for alcohol or illicit substances; however, the captain tested positive for Diltiazem.  Diltiazem is a prescription blood pressure medication the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permitted the pilot to use.


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