Any airline crash that results in fatalities can be considered a tragedy. What can make the situation even worse is when the crash is a result of human error, and is therefore absolutely preventable. Such was the case with Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed on February 12, 2009 in Buffalo, New York. This paper will discuss details of the crash, which was technically a casualty of Colgan Airlines, a division of Continental, and will discuss the elements of human error –inexperience and incompetence– and how they contributed to the tragedy. The accident also raised concerns about whether or not regional airlines are held to the same safety standards as larger, major airlines. The resulting changes in FAA standards that were designed to prevent such disasters from occurring in the future will also be covered.
Flight 3407 was a commuter flight originating in Newark New Jersey and traveling to Buffalo, New York. Transcripts from the flight revealed that during the last few minutes of the doomed trip, the pilots that were in control of the flight were chattering with the crew and making jokes about their lack of experience and expertise that would have prepared them to manage the icy conditions that they faced that night (Pasztor, 2009.) The crew appeared to be completely preoccupied with their own conversations rather than paying attention to conditions in the air that were relevant to the operations of the flight. Rather, they discussed their personal schedules, commuting issues, and other topics that were not related to the flight itself, which was a violation of FAA regulations that insist that airline crew focus solely on matters relevant to the flight.
As a result, all of the 49 people aboard the flight were killed as well as one person on the ground into whose home the airplane crash landed. In the minutes before the crash, the crew discussed the buildup of ice on the plane but neglected to develop an emergency plan for that situation, instead continuing to share personal vignettes about icing, and joking about their lack of experience in handling such situations. The irony is that the report that was later released by the NTSB revealed that the plane was brought down not by ice accumulation, but instead by the captain’s decision to slow down the engine and raise the plane’s nose rather than to observe the protocol for that situation, which would have been to “pull back on the controls and overpower an automatic stall-protection system that was trying to push the nose of the plane down to regain flying speed” (Pasztor, 2009.). This blatant example of human error resulted in dozens of lives lost as well as pain and suffering of their surviving loved ones.
The crew made a variety of mistakes that were complicated by their evident distraction and preoccupation about the icy conditions, causing them to fail to notice that the speed of the plane had decreased significantly; they were caught off guard by an initial stall warning as well as the disconnection of the autopilot just before the crash. Ultimately, the NTSB determined that the airplane was in a decline that would have been recoverable. Instead, the crew did not correctly utilize the ice-protection system, and as a result, did not accurately program approach speeds into the flight computer.
Just prior to landing, the pilot and crew were heard bantering and exchanging personal matters, violating mandatory US civil aviation rules that ban the discussion of subjects not connected to the flight during certain vital procedures such as during landing (Buffalo Plane Crash Pilot Laughed And Chatted As Airliner Froze, Transcript Shows, 2009.) The airplanes stalled, before rolling over and crashing into a house on the ground and turning into a fireball.
The issue of competence and skill of the staff became a concern almost immediately when it was reported that the pilot, Marvin Renslow, who had joined the Continental staff in September 2005, had a record of failing competency tests on a periodic basis (Buffalo Plane Crash Pilot Laughed and Chatted as Airliner Froze, Transcript Shows, 2009.) In addition, prior to the Continental crash, pilot Renslow had complained of congestion, a condition that should likely have caused him to take time off for illness until he recovered. In addition, pilot fatigue as well as that of the staff was looked into when this plane crash was investigated. The first officer of the plane could possibly have intervened to push the plane’s nose down herself when it was clear that the pilot reacted incorrectly, but she likely was reluctant to act because she was an inexperienced pilot who was also communing across the country in order to make the flight in Newark. Both she and the pilot were most likely suffering from fatigue, which was seen as a probable causative factor to the crash.
The captain of the flight, Renslow, had failed many flight tests during his career and it was discovered that he was never appropriately instructed about how to handle the sort of situation that he faced which caused the Buffalo flight crash. His record contained five unsatisfactory training check rides–sporadic measures of competency that are required any time a pilot is assigned to fly in any new type of aircraft–in his career, although he had ultimately passed a battery of training exams (Pasztor, Captains Training Faulted in Air Crash That Killed 50, 2009.) In addition, before joining Colgan, he failed three proficiency checks on general aviation aircraft, tests that were administered by the FAA, although Colgan later claimed that Renslow failed to acknowledge those failures when he applied to work for Colgan.
Specifically, however, Renslow had not been trained about how to respond to the warning system which was designed to prevent the plane that was flown in the Buffalo crash from stalling (Pasztor, Captains Training Faulted in Air Crash That Killed 50, 2009.) Captain Renslow had approximately 109 hours of experience flying that specific airliner as a captain, considered to be an unusually small amount of time by industry standards. It had only been two months since he had begun flying that particular aircraft. The entire tragedy shone a spotlight on Colgan’s training and hiring practices, in addition to raising the larger issue of the competency of regional airlines, their staffs and skill levels as compared with those of larger airlines.
The fact that all of these signals did not prevent Renslow from flying for any airline, regional or major, highlights the human error decisions that led to the deaths of 50 people unnecessarily.
In order to avoid the sort of tragedy that befell Continental Connection Flight 3407, there are several standards that could have been applied to ensure that such a catastrophic incident would not have occurred. The major change that would have had a completely different result would have been for the airline not to allow a pilot with Captain Renslow’s record to be flying planes. Given how many instances were documented where his competency was clearly in question, he required so much remediation in his training that warning bells should have gone off; the public should not have been put at risk under such circumstances.
Pilots with so many failures should be grounded for a substantial length of time, if they are to resume flying at all; if there are even one or two such instances of demonstrated incompetence, the pilot should be retrained and tested on a constant basis before being allowed to fly, and only then, perhaps with an experienced copilot in the cockpit. In the Buffalo tragedy, unfortunately the other staff that was involved in the flight was as inexperienced and incompetent as the captain was, so that there was no skilled adult able to make decisions that would have avoided the crash by responding to the airline stall in a way that would have resolved the flight.