WASHINGTON -- A gap in federal regulations allows turboprop planes to be flown without ever being certified as safe in the most dangerous icy conditions -- a fact that has enraged flight safety experts for more than a decade and that's drawing new attention in light of the crash of Flight 3407.
While federal officials say icing is just one of many factors they are examining in the wake of the crash, which killed 50 people the night of Feb. 12, some pilots and other aviation experts are convinced icing played a role.
More than a few are angry about what they see as the Federal Aviation Administration's industry-influenced inattention to a grave danger for turboprop planes like the one that crashed in Clarence: "Supercooled large droplet icing," or freezing rain that sticks to the plane.
After a similar accident in Roselawn, Ind., in 1994, "we stood tall and said this should never have happened and should never happen again," said Stephen A. Frederick, a retired pilot who wrote "Unheeded Warning," a book about that crash. "We committed our lives to make changes. Now, 50 more have committed their lives."
The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the Clarence crash, expected to last at least a year, will determine whether freezing rain had anything to do with the downing of Flight 3407.
But the flight crew reported icy conditions -- and that has prompted aviation experts to note that the safety board has been pushing for new rules for flying in freezing rain for 12 years.
For much of that time, the FAA left the issue in the hands of a 55-member committee culled largely from the aviation industry. That panel began issuing recommendations three years ago, and the FAA has been studying them ever since.
The FAA defends its rule-making process as painstakingly slow out of necessity, but Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and other critics don't buy it.
"It's very troubling that the agency in charge of safety repeatedly makes recommendations and they are not accepted," said Schumer, who added that it is "no secret that the FAA at the top was not well-run."
>New rules needed
It's also no secret that the safety board has listed new rules on flying in freezing rain one of its "most wanted safety improvements" since 1997.
"Before another accident or serious incident occurs, the FAA should evaluate all existing turbo propeller-driven airplanes in service using the new information available" about the dangers of freezing rain, the safety board says in the most recent edition of its most-wanted safety recommendations.
The FAA should use current research on freezing rain and large water droplets to revise the way aircraft are designed and approved for flight in icing conditions, the safety board says. In addition, those new standards should be applied to aircraft that are already certified for flight, said the safety board, which labels the FAA's response to its recommendations "unacceptable."
In wake of those 1997 recommendations, the FAA turned the issue over to an "Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee."
The 55-member panel includes about 35 entities from the aviation industry -- such as Boeing, Airbus and the Regional Airline Alliance -- along with a collection of unions and the National Air Disaster Alliance Foundation, which works to raise safety standards and support the families of crash victims.
Asked why the panel was weighted toward industry, Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said: "It's generally because people who have expertise in these areas come from industry."
But aviation experts wonder if the rule-making delay is connected to the industry's influence -- and its concerns about the expense of retrofitting planes to make sure planes can fly safely in freezing rain.
"I suspect that relates to what it really costs to do this," said Joseph L. Schofer, associate dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Others worry, however, that the cost of not bolstering icing regulations is especially high -- in human lives.
Families of the 68 victims of the Roselawn crash, which involved a turboprop flying in icy conditions, have compiled a list of a dozen similar accidents worldwide since the mid-1990s. And Jerry Skinner of the Nolan Law Group in Chicago said one Cessna turboprop model has experienced at least 26 accidents in icing conditions.
The safety board's concern, and that of experts like Skinner, is that the pneumatic de-icing boots commonly used on turboprop planes just aren't up to the job of removing the huge amounts of ice that can cling to a plane flying through freezing rain.
While pneumatic de-icing boots can knock off ice from upward of 40 percent of a wing's surface, supercooled large droplet ice can form on the back of the wing where it can't be removed, said Tom Ratvasky, an icing research engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
And severe icing on either the wing or the tail of a plane will radically change its aerodynamics, meaning it will have to fly faster in order to stay aloft -- which can be difficult for some lower-powered turboprop planes, aviation experts said.
>A broader question
So did Flight 3407 fall from the sky because fast-forming freezing rain weighed it down and changed the shape of its wings or tail?
The NTSB's investigation will attempt to answer that question, but some experts are convinced that it did.
"Icing very obviously has something to do with this accident," said Kirk Koenig, president of Expert Aviation Consulting of Indianapolis and a commercial pilot for 25 years. "My opinion is this mostly can be blamed on the FAA, through their lack of guidance."
The plane's crew reported ice on the wings and windshield, as did another plane heading to Buffalo Niagara International Airport at about the same time.
According to the National Weather Service, the airport temperature was measured at 33 degrees shortly before 10 p.m. Weather conditions were described as "light snow, fog and mist," with southwest winds of 17 mph, gusting up to 25 mph.
The plane was flying at about 1,650 feet above the ground when it began to experience problems. Slightly above that altitude, the temperature would probably have been closer to 29 or 30 degrees, according to Peter Goelz, a former managing director for the NTSB.
"There is a range of temperatures that can cause icing, and the weather this plane was flying through was in that range," Goelz said.
For aviation safety experts, though, there's a broader question than whether ice doomed Flight 3407.
"Until they can show that icing was not a factor, I'm not sure this airplane should be flown in icing conditions similar to those encountered during this flight," said M.P. "Pappy" Papadakis, a lawyer and retired pilot in Texas who co-authored a textbook in aviation law.
Jim Hall, the former chairman of the safety board, has said the same thing.
The crew of Flight 3407 turned on the de-icing equipment 11 minutes into the flight, federal officials have said. And Brown, of the FAA, insisted that the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 -- the model that crashed in Buffalo -- is safe to fly in icy conditions.
"The plane has a very sophisticated ice detection and protection system on it," including features that the FAA is thinking about requiring in any new rules governing flying during icy conditions, Brown said.
Those rules -- one for certifying newly designed planes for flying in freezing rain and another for making sure previously certified planes are safe in such conditions -- "are both in the category of rules still under development," Brown said.
The FAA is required by law to do an economic analysis of all proposed new rules, and agency critics said that slow-moving process is connected with its dual mission of serving both as a regulator of the aviation industry and a promoter of its growth.
"Whether they like it or not, they have this really strong advocacy role for the industry, too," said Schofer, of Northwestern University. "It's a challenge for the FAA to balance those two tasks."
The FAA, however, insists it has not ignored the freezing rain issue. Brown noted that the agency has issued more than 100 airworthiness directives to address icing issues since 1994, ranging from changes in crew operating procedures to airplane design.
But the Feb. 12 crash in Clarence still raises questions for officials like Steven B. Chealander, the safety board member who was in Buffalo the past week.
Almost a year after he pleaded with Congress for tougher safeguards against icing on turboprop aircraft, Chealander found himself leading the investigation into the crash of Flight 3407 -- and acknowledging some frustration with the FAA's slow pace of action on the icing issue.
"Suffice it to say," he said during his stay in Buffalo, "the NTSB identified recommendations that it would like to be moving faster than they are. It's taken longer than we would like."
Skinner -- former safety chairman and Hall's law partner -- offered his thoughts as to why.
"As is said often, if not acknowledged by the NTSB, about the FAA: 'The FAA acts according to the Tombstone Principle -- little is accomplished in terms of safety until enough tombstones are raised,' " Skinner said.
News Staff Reporter Dan Herbeck contributed to this report.
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