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Colgan failed to give emails on pilot to safety board

WASHINGTON -- Colgan Air never gave federal safety investigators the internal 2008 emails indicating that company officials doubted the competence of the pilot who eventually flew Continental Connection Flight 3407 into the ground.

And those emails contradict the sworn testimony of one of Colgan's key witnesses at investigative hearings on the crash in 2009.

Those revelations Monday unleashed a flurry of anger toward Colgan -- which operated the doomed flight on behalf of Continental -- from the Families of Continental Flight 3407 and a lawyer representing some of the families. Meanwhile, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, demanded that the federal crash investigation be reopened.

Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, said Colgan should have shared those critical emails with the National Transportation Safety Board during its 2009 crash investigation. Instead they came to light last week as part of the discovery process in a federal lawsuit the families filed against Colgan and Continental.

"I find it absolutely inexcusable that Colgan Air did not provide this documentation to the NTSB as part of its initial study of why this crash occurred," said Kuwik, whose girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, died in the Feb. 12, 2009, crash in Clarence Center, which claimed 50 lives.

What's more, a lawyer for some of the Flight 3407 families highlighted the comparison and contrast between the emails and the sworn testimony of Harry Mitchel, then-vice president of flight operations for Colgan.

In one of the 2008 emails, a Colgan official told Mitchel and other airline executives that Capt. Marvin Renslow, the eventual Flight 3407 pilot, "had a problem upgrading" to more sophisticated aircraft.

In response, Mitchel said pilots with such problems should not be allowed to fly the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 -- the aircraft Renslow eventually crashed.

"Anyone that does not meet the [minimum standards] and had problems in training before is not ready to tackle the Q ...," Mitchel wrote.

Nevertheless -- and even though the emails show he was the least experienced pilot being considered for an upgrade -- Renslow was allowed into Colgan's fall 2008 training class for Q400 pilots.

And three months after the crash and nine months after Mitchel sent that email, Mitchel said in sworn testimony before the safety board: "From his Q400 training, going forward, [Renslow] had 16 months of a very fine track record with successful completion of six training and checking events."

In addition, Mitchel said under oath: "All I can say is Captain Renslow was fully qualified to captain the aircraft."

Reflecting on the contradiction between Mitchel's statements, Hugh M. Russ III, the lawyer for some of the families, said: "Mitchel either has a terrible memory, or he deliberately provided false testimony to the NTSB."

Mitchel could not be reached to comment, and Joe F. Williams, director of communications for Pinnacle Airlines, Colgan's parent company, did not reply to emails seeking comment. The safety board can subpoena documents as part of its investigations, so it is unclear exactly why Colgan was able to withhold those emails from agency investigators.

In a statement, safety board Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said that while investigators did multiple interviews with Colgan officials, "It is disappointing that Colgan Air did not provide these emails during the course of the NTSB's investigation; they would have provided more context about Colgan's training and screening of their pilots."

The Flight 3407 families and federal lawmakers reacted much more bluntly to the contradictions in Mitchel's statements. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave," Kuwik said. "They've tried to cover their butt so many times, but it's catching up with them."

Meanwhile, Hochul, who suggested the safety board investigation be reopened, said, "I'm appalled by what appears to be a lack of honesty on the part of Colgan and Pinnacle."

"Saying one thing in a hearing under oath, which conflicts with emails that were sent out the previous year, points to, in my judgment, a cover-up," added Hochul, whose district includes the crash site.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed that Mitchel's 2008 email comments "are in direct conflict" with his sworn testimony less than a year later.

"It would seem to me that these emails are elemental to the investigation and should have been turned over to the NTSB," Higgins said.

The safety board's investigation eventually concluded that pilot error was to blame for the crash. The crew allowed the plane to slow to the point where a stall warning sounded, and then Renslow moved the controls in the wrong direction in reaction to the warning, causing the plane to lose control and plummet into a home.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he, too, was upset that Colgan had withheld the emails.

"This revelation makes it painfully clear that key details fell through the cracks during the investigation into Flight 3407," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible and make sure we learn every last lesson from this tragedy to prevent it from happening again."

jzremski@buffnews.com