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Safety aides chide FAA for ignoring warnings on ice

Tougher regulations are needed to protect planes flying in the kind of icy conditions that possibly downed a Continental Connection flight in Clarence Center Thursday, federal safety officials have said, again and again, for more than a decade.

But the Federal Aviation Administration has never heeded the safety officials' repeated warnings that more needs to be done about the risks that ice can pose to propeller planes.

That's proved frustrating for the National Transportation Safety Board, which first recommended improved icing regulations in their "Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements" in 1997 and then added to those recommendations several times over the years.

"The pace of the FAA`s activities in response to these recommendations remains unacceptably slow, despite recent encouraging action," Steven Chealander, the safety board member who is currently in Buffalo to investigate the crash of Continental Flight 3407, told a Senate committee last April.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which would impose any new rules, conceded in April 2007 that icing poses "an insidious hazard to aircraft" and proposed measures for safer flying in icy conditions. Yet those measures have not yet been implemented.

"It takes a little while to get this stuff going," said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman. "Rulemaking takes a period of time."

The safety board, however, has confronted the issue with a sense of urgency.

"The consequences of operating an airplane in icing conditions, without first having thoroughly demonstrated adequate handling/controlability characteristics in those conditions, are sufficiently severe that they warrant a thorough certification test program," Chealander said in his Senate testimony.

That program should include "application of revised standards to airplanes currently certificated for flight in icing conditions," he added.

And in congressional testimony in June 2007, safety board Chairman Mark V. Rosenker put things more bluntly.

"Before another accident or serious incident occurs, the FAA should evaluate all existing turbo-propeller driven airplanes in service using the new information available, such as critical ice shapes and stall warning margins in icing conditions," Rosenker said.

While Rosenker said at the time that he thought the FAA was delaying action because it had been years since icing had appeared to play a role in a major crash, Peters insisted the FAA has not been ignoring the issue.

He pointed to an agency advisory noting more than 100 airworthiness directives instituted since 1994 to address icing issues on more than 50 aircraft types. The orders range from crew operating procedures in the icing environment to direct design changes.

"We also have changed airplane flight manuals and other operating documents to address icing safety," the advisory said, "and issued bulletins and alerts to operators emphasizing icing safety issues."

Peters said the agency is required to put new rules "out for comment" after their initial development, often delaying implementation. But he said he was unable to determine if the three new rules the FAA proposed 22 months ago have taken an extraordinary amount of time to be implemented.

The FAA noted in 2007 that its regulations do not require a way to warn pilots of ice buildup. It proposed requiring an effective way to detect ice buildup or let pilots know that icing conditions exist, and produce timely activation of the ice protection system.

The proposed rule would mandate one of three methods to detect icing and activate the ice protection system:

An ice detection system that automatically activates or alerts pilots to implement the ice protection system.

A definition of visual signs of ice buildup on a specified surface (windshield wiper post or wings) combined with a system that alerts pilots to activate the ice protection system.

Identification of temperature and moisture conditions causing airframe icing that would tip off pilots to activate the ice protection system.

The advisory further notes that on Aug. 8, the FAA published a final rule introducing new standards for icing conditions that improve safety for new airplane designs. But that falls far short of what the NTSB has been calling for since its probe of a 1994 crash of a turbo-prop aircraft in Roselawn, Ind., that killed 68 people.

Noting that the FAA has delivered an "unacceptable response" to four of the safety board's icing recommendations since 1997, the safety board said on its Web site: "The Federal Aviation Administration has not adopted a systematic and proactive approach to the certification and operational issues of turbine-engine-driven, transport-category airplane icing."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com

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