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Experience level of pilots assessed On regional airlines, cockpit time far less

The captain of Flight 3407, Marvin D. Renslow, completed his training on a Dash 8 just two months ago and had 110 hours flying the turboprop.

His first officer, Rebecca Lynne Shaw, had built up about 770 hours flying the Dash 8 -- roughly the hours a commercial pilot amasses in a year.

"As a general rule, the experience level in regional airlines is about a tenth of the experience level in major airlines," said Douglas M. Moss, an airline pilot with more than 30,000 hours in the air and president of AeroPacific Consulting of Torrance, Calif.

"There's a huge experience disparity. It should raise the eyebrows of a lot of people," he said.

A National Transportation Safety Board member said Monday that investigators trying to determine the cause of Thursday night's crash will assess, among other things, the training of Flight 3407's crew, its schedule over the previous week and the prior 72 hours, in particular, to confirm they had the amount of rest that federal rules require.

Renslow and Shaw worked for Colgan Air, the subcontractor that runs Continental Airlines commuter flights. Pilots and aviation experts interviewed by The Buffalo News faulted neither Renslow nor Shaw for the crash that killed all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground in Clarence.

The experts said Renslow, 47, and Shaw, 24, were probably typical of the pilots who fly for regional airlines:

*They slog through long days for modest pay.

*They have fewer years in the business than their big-airline counterparts.

*More importantly, they have fewer experiences to draw on when facing the judgment calls.

"In reading hundreds of accident reports, the more experience the pilot has, the more able he is to handle the unique situations of any emergency," Moss said.

"That is one advantage of flying a major airline: You have tremendously more experience," he said. "The bag of resources a crew has is much larger. In the Hudson, Capt. Sullenberger wasn't using procedures that are written somewhere. There's no training for what he did. It's all just experience."

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III was almost 58 and had about 20,000 hours of flight time when bird strikes took out both engines of a Boeing 737 and he crash-landed US Airways Flight 1549 perfectly into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, saving all 155 people onboard.

Renslow, by comparison, had built up 3,379 hours by Feb. 12, and Shaw 2,244.

Pilots employed by regional airlines are working their way up. Pilots for major airlines might earn $100,000 to $120,000, and first officers $60,000 to $70,000. Their counterparts with a regional airline are likely earn one-third to one-half as much. "So that first officer who was 24 years old was probably making $20,000 to $25,000 a year," Moss said.

The NTSB considered Renslow and Shaw as experienced. Before Renslow trained on the Dash 8, he had thousands of hours on the smaller Saab twin-engine turboprop. "The training is good enough, strict enough and covers enough to make sure you are ready to do what you have to do when you are in that seat," said the NTSB's Steven R. Chealander.

Still, investigators are examining the actions of the crew. They know that Renslow and Shaw turned on the airplane's de-icing equipment 11 minutes after the plane departed Newark Liberty International Airport. But what next?

Pilots and federal agencies, including the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration, don't have uniform views on what pilots should do about icing, and they can differ on what constitutes severe icing. Pilot experience plays a role.

"A lot of times, it is a very subjective opinion. One guy may say it's light. Another may say it's moderate," said Kirk Koenig, a partner at Expert Aviation Consulting in Indianapolis.

Renslow and Shaw had remarked about the ice buildup on their airplane -- on the cockpit windows and the leading edge of the wings. Pilots interviewed Monday did not call that level of buildup "severe," which would have required immediate action.

But other pilots, and an online course carrying the NASA seal, note that ice becomes more dangerous at lower altitudes. Ice can build more rapidly, air speed slows, and pilots have less room to maneuver.

Further, at any altitude, pilots cannot see the ice buildup on their aircraft's tail sections. Koenig said experience has taught him that "whatever you see on the wing is three or four times worse on the tail."

Bombardier, the maker of the Dash 8, has told the NTSB that the airplane is not susceptible to a tail stall, Chealander said. But Koenig theorized that's just what happened, as ice hampered the tail's ability to stabilize the front of the aircraft, and the nose lifted sharply as Flight 3407 prepared to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Koenig suspects that as the autopilot kicked off with an alarm, the crew quickly but wrongly corrected for what they surmised was a "wing stall" -- when the wings lack sufficient lift to right the plane.

The crew would have had just seconds to make their decisions. "At the altitude they were at, they probably didn't have much chance of recovering," said James M. Burin, director for technical programs for the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

Said Koenig: "That low to the ground, in this situation, I don't think it would have mattered if you had Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong flying the plane. I think the outcome would have been the same."

Some airlines and many pilots welcome the use of autopilot because it relieves the workload. Bombardier recommends that when ice becomes severe, the autopilot should be disengaged so the pilot can more efficiently correct for weather conditions, Chealander said.

The NTSB, since an icing-related crash killed 68 people in Roselawn, Ind., in 1994, has wanted the FAA to recommend that pilots disengage the autopilot during icing conditions.

The FAA has yet to do so. So some industry experts believe that the tragedy of Flight 3407 would have been avoidable with a clearer policy on how pilots should respond to ice, and what constitutes severe ice. Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, for example, says the crash of Flight 3407 was "likely preventable," had the FAA adequately addressed the risks of icing.

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

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