Crash here is among nation's deadliest Flight 3407 is 22nd in review of FAA data - The Buffalo News

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Crash here is among nation's deadliest Flight 3407 is 22nd in review of FAA data

Continental Connections Flight 3407 ranks as the 22nd most deadly crash of American commercial flights during the past 30 years, according to a Buffalo News review of federal data.

Among crashes involving propeller planes, only two claimed more lives than the Feb. 12 crash in Clarence Center that killed 50 people, the data shows.

One of those crashes involved a 1985 chartered flight returning to Minnesota from Reno, Nev., after a Super Bowl weekend. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, its debris scattered near an RV park. Sixty-seven people died in the crash, blamed on pilot and maintenance crew error.

The other was an American Eagle turboprop stuck in a holding pattern at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, in the midst of freezing rain 15 years ago. On descent, the pilot lost control, and the plane -- which wasn't designed to handle that level of icing -- crashed in a soybean field in Indiana, killing all 68 people aboard.

If investigators determine icing also played a role in the Clarence disaster, Flight 3407 will be added to the list of 12 accidents over the past three decades in which icing was a factor. Two-thirds of those accidents involved propeller planes, and half involved fatalities -- 471 died in six accidents. Turboprops were involved in half the fatal flights.

"Turboprops, for as old as they are, there's an awful lot we don't know about their performance in ice," said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation. "If you're a turboprop pilot, what you don't have a lot of is icing experience. Turboprops just cannot take a lot of operation in ice. You're instructed to get out of it."

The News obtained Federal Aviation Administration accident data for the past 30 years, covering 187,000 accidents and less serious incidents for everything from helicopters and gliders to turboprops and jumbo jets. The News analyzed the approximately 1,000 accidents involving commercial planes in which 15 or more people were on board.

Fatalities occurred in about one in 10 of these accidents overall, The News found. On jets, the death rate was slightly lower than on larger propeller planes -- those with more than 25 seats, such as the one that crashed in Clarence. But on smaller propeller planes, which are more often used for private or business flights, fatalities occurred in more than one out of three accidents.

The analysis also found:

January and December were the deadliest months for larger propeller planes. Fatal jet crashes, though, were most common in July and March, closely followed by August and September.

Overall, most plane crashes, whether jet or propeller-driven, occur during the day, when most flights occur. However, a disproportionate number crashes of small propeller planes -- those with 15 to 25 seats -- occur at night.

Jet pilots in fatal accidents with 15 or more people on board averaged 9,523 hours of flying time; prop pilots had an average of 6,419 hours.

The most commonly cited "primary cause" for fatal airplane crashes, in both jet and propeller planes, was "improper use of equipment" and "unsafe acts of a third party," which included such things as emergency landings prompted by bomb threats, people walking into propellers, and collisions with vehicles on the runway.

Weather and downdrafts were among the "contributing factors" for fatal crashes on jet and propeller planes. Icing was also among the most common "contributing factors" on propeller plane fatal accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said it is too early to determine the exact cause of the Flight 3407 crash, but icing has been mentioned along with possible pilot error or mechanical malfunction.

Of the 25 most deadly plane crashes in the past 30 years, three were blamed, at least in part, on icing.

The most deadly of these accidents occurred aboard the Arrow Air military charter, Flight 1285, carrying 101st Airborne Division soldiers returning to Kentucky for the Christmas holiday from a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East.

The DC-8 jet left Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 11, 1985, and stopped in Germany before arriving at Gander Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. The aircraft then refueled before heading on Dec. 12 to Fort Campbell, Ky., where the Division was based. Shortly after take-off, at about 3,000 feet from the end of the runway, the plane crashed, killing all 253 on board.

The Canadian Aviation Safety Board couldn't determine the exact sequence leading to the accident, but felt ice on the wing caused the plane to stall. Because the stall occurred at such a low altitude, the jet was unable to recover.

Another icing accident involving a jet occurred Jan. 13, 1982, on Air Florida Flight 90 between Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale. The flight initially was delayed because of a snowfall in Washington. Shortly after takeoff, the Boeing 737 fell from the sky, hitting a bridge before plunging into the Potomac River, killing 78, including four motorists.

The accident was blamed on improper use of de-icing equipment, the long ground delay and crew's lack of cold-weather experience. Contrary to the flight manual's guidance, the crew at one point attempted to de-ice the aircraft by intentionally positioning the plane near the exhaust of the aircraft ahead of it on the runway.

While jet planes are not immune to icing, turboprops are more vulnerable because of their de-icing features.

"[Jets] are faster, and don't stay in icing conditions as long, and their blades, rather than boots [perform de-icing]," said former NTSB chairman Jim Hall.

The most deadly turboprop accident in the United States attributed to icing involved American Eagle Flight 4184. The NTSB investigation determined the ATR plane was not designed for colder climates. After the crash, the airline no longer flew ATRs in cold weather climates.

Other fatal icing accidents involving propeller planes included a Beechcraft 900C that crashed Nov. 23, 1987, in Homer, Alaska, killing 18 of 21 people onboard, and a twin-engine turboprop that crashed Jan. 9, 1997, en route from Cincinnati to Detroit. All 29 people on Comair Flight 3272 were killed.

The NTSB blamed icing and criticized the FAA. "The probable cause of this accident was the FAA's failure to establish adequate aircraft certification standards for flight in icing conditions," the NTSB said.

"Any time we see an accident like this repeating itself, on information we should have already learned, it's an indictment of the whole system," Hall said at the time. "Icing needs to be aggressively approached, as wind shear was in the '80s, so hopefully we can eliminate it as a factor in future accidents."

The FAA did not respond to three requests to comment for this report.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com and sschulman@buffnews.com

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