Fifty people are dead, and it's not because of the weather. Blame the Federal Aviation Administration, blame Colgan Air, blame the flight crew; all of them left their fingerprints on this disaster. But it wasn't the weather. Even in wintry weather and stalling at only 600 feet of altitude, this plane should have landed safely. That's the tragedy of Flight 3407.
To be sure, icing played a pivotal role in the crash of the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, but the point is that it shouldn't have. As experts testified Tuesday at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the Feb. 12 crash in Clarence Center, another Colgan airplane later landed safely in similar conditions at Burlington, Vt. The big differences were in the pilot's actions during the flight and his response to them, but it was a witch's brew of mistakes that brought this plane down -- errors committed in the moments, hours and even years before the crash.
Pilot Marvin D. Renslow was flying on autopilot, which the NTSB says is dangerous during icing conditions. However, the FAA has refused to forbid the practice. Why? Had Renslow been manually piloting the plane, he and co-pilot Rebecca L. Shaw would have been better attuned to conditions. The plane probably wouldn't have crashed.
But there's more. Colgan Air, which operated the connecting flight for Continental Airlines, doesn't give its pilots hands-on training on recovering from stalls. When Flight 3407 stalled, the inattentive pilot did the exact wrong thing, causing the airplane to crash instead of stabilize. Had he done the right thing -- lowering the nose, increasing power and leveling the wings -- the plane probably wouldn't have crashed.
Renslow and co-pilot Shaw broke regulations by talking about non-flight issues below 10,000 feet of altitude and, worse, by doing so in bad weather. Meantime, the cockpit recordings and data show they were ignoring critical flight data, leading to the crisis that Renslow mishandled. Had they been paying attention, the plane probably wouldn't have crashed.
And there's still more. Before the flight, Renslow had commuted from Florida to his home base in Newark, N.J., and -- against regulations -- slept in the Colgan flight crew room. Shaw violated company policy by flying in from Washington state just the night before, and she was sick, with the cockpit recording picking up her continual sneezing.
A Colgan official said she could have called in sick, though pilots complain airline companies make them pay for that time off. If that's so, leaders of the NTSB hearing need to investigate. No one should have to fly in a plane with an ailing cockpit crew.
Finally, Renslow had failed three federal flying tests before he was hired. Colgan officials say airlines have to rely on applicants' honesty, because the federal Privacy Act prevents them from checking on test results without a waiver from the applicant. That law may need to be changed, but an easier solution is available: Don't hire pilots who refuse to provide access to relevant data. Pay attention to red flags.
Icing is a routine problem for pilots, especially when flying turboprop aircraft. It may pay not to fly those planes in the north during winter months and, indeed, some airlines don't. They understand the problems.
But icing is manageable. It wasn't the issue. Training, pilot integrity and federal regulation were the critical failures. If any one of those issues goes unaddressed after these hearings, another plane will someday come down for similar reasons. If it does, shame on us for not learning.