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Aviation safety in the U.S. is the legacy of Flight 3407

Fifty lives ended a decade ago Tuesday when the exhausted, under-trained pilots of Continental Connection Flight 3407 blundered their way through an emergency and crashed their plane into a home in Clarence.

But on that very same day – Feb. 12, 2009 – a new era of aviation safety began.

U.S. airlines – which experienced a major crash, on average, every 17 months in the preceding 20 years – haven't suffered a single such accident since Flight 3407. After two decades in which 1,186 people died in U.S. commercial plane crashes, this decade has seen only one such fatality: the death of a woman when a Southwest Airlines jet window shattered last year.

The safety turnaround inspires superlatives. The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert L. Sumwalt, called it "tremendous." The pilot behind the "Miracle on the Hudson," Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger, said his industry's recent safety record is "something I wouldn't have thought possible 25 years ago."

Both men said the nation's remarkable aviation safety record is rooted in part in the tragedy that happened on that icy night in Clarence 10 years ago.

After federal investigators found that the pilots of Flight 3407 were inadequately trained and yawning in the cockpit, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed Congress to pass a landmark law requiring pilots to have better training, more experience and more rest.

That law, combined with other improvements that federal regulators and the airlines made both before and after that legislation passed, created the safest era in aviation history.

Airline industry experts and the Flight 3407 families note that there's still some unfinished business in keeping the skies safe, but many agree with what Sumwalt – a former pilot and the nation's top safety official – had to say about the crash in Clarence and its impact on aviation safety.

"This truly was a watershed event that led to the most profound changes in the aviation industry in my entire lifetime," Sumwalt said.

Phil Johnson tries to keep luminaries glowing at the site where Flight 3407 crashed during a vigil earlier this year. He lost his father-in-law Kevin Johnston. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A landmark law

The Flight 3407 families turned the lessons of a plane crash into law.

Sullenberger, who famously piloted a US Airways jet to a safe landing on the Hudson River after a bird strike disabled the plane's engines in January 2009, marvels at what the Flight 3407 families accomplished.

"Everyone who flies owes the Buffalo families a debt of gratitude that they will never be able to repay," he said.

The lessons of the Clarence crash spilled out in wrenching detail at National Transportation Safety Board hearings in May 2009. The co-pilot, a fatigued 24 year-old with a cold, misprogrammed a computer that made the plane slow down too much as it approached Buffalo. The pilot – hired even though he failed three test flights early in his career – wasn't fully trained in handling such emergencies and botched his response, crashing the plane.

An aerial view of site where Flight 3407 crashed into a home on Long Street in Clarence at 10:17 p.m. Feb. 12, 2009, killing all 49 people aboard and a man in the home. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

"There was so much about this accident that was so disturbing," Sumwalt said.

The Flight 3407 families set out to fix every safety problem the investigators found. They pushed for a law that required both pilots of every commercial airplane to have 1,500 hours of flight experience – up from 250. They pushed for new training requirements that would force pilots to learn how to recover from a stall in a simulator that mimicked one. And they pushed for new rest rules that meant that pilots had to get a full night's sleep between flights.

Clad in their trademark red, the Flight 3407 families buttonholed senators and House members, friends and foes, and won passage of that legislation in August 2010.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, helped the families at every step, but said the families deserve all the credit.

"There are many people walking alive and happy on the face of this earth who might not have otherwise been because of the work of these great families," said Schumer, now the Senate minority leader.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, agreed.

"It is no coincidence that the United States has experienced zero commercial airline fatalities caused by pilot error since the 2010 airline safety bill became law," said Collins, who, as Erie County executive in 2009, rushed to the scene of the crash.

Looking back on it all now, the Flight 3407 families seem amazed at their own accomplishments.

"The thing that does always stand out to me is the fact that we're just a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary," said Karen Wielinski, who lived in the house that Flight 3407 struck and whose husband, Doug, died when the plane struck the home.

At a 2014 memorial service in Clarence Center, a poster with the photos of those who died in the crash of Flight 3407. (Buffalo News file photo)

A quiet revolution

The Flight 3407 crash didn't just shake those who lost love ones. It shook the airline industry, as well as those who oversaw it.

"No one wanted to be the next Colgan Air," the regional airline that operated Flight 3407, said Kevin Kuwik, one of the early leaders of the Flight 3407 families group.

The crash investigation revealed huge safety gaps between such regional airlines and the big carriers that sign them up to handle shorter flights.

For that reason, Randy Babbitt, then the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, vowed to bring "one level of safety" to the passenger airlines. He started preaching the virtues of the FAA's volunteer safety programs and urged the regional airlines to sign onto them.

Over time, many did. In 2009, only a third of the nation's airlines took part in a voluntary program in which employees are encouraged to report safety issues. Now, 71 percent of U.S. airlines do. Similarly, 11 percent of airlines took part in an FAA flight data monitoring program back in 2009, but now 45 percent do.

The FAA also established a program to gather all the data from such programs and share it among all the airlines.

"Now the airline industry as a whole can see where the problems are," and fix them before they result in accidents, said Sumwalt, the NTSB chairman.

Similarly, in 2008 the FAA started a voluntary program in which air traffic controllers report safety problems, meaning the FAA can look for dangerous patterns and work to correct them.

Technological improvements over many decades contribute to the aviation safety record, too, said Capt. John M. Cox, a longtime pilot who now runs a consulting firm called Safety Monitoring Systems.

For example, in 2000 the FAA required all planes to include systems that warn pilots when they fly too close to land or a body of water. That new equipment virtually eliminated accidents that happened when pilots couldn't see where they were flying.

Such changes over several decades combined with the 2010 law to produce safer skies, Cox said.

"We've worked brick by brick in attaining the safest transportation system ever designed by man," he said.

Unfinished business

Family members of Flight 3407 victims – from left, Cheryl Borner, Justine Krasuski and Karen Wielinski – applaud as "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot "Sully" Sullenberger speaks during a 2015 event to push to protect the tougher pilot training rules the families fought for. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Flight 3407 families still have unfinished business: protecting the most controversial part of the safety law and pressing the FAA to implement one last key piece.

The airlines have long fought the requirement that co-pilots as well as pilots have the equivalent of 1,500 hours of flight experience.

Some safety advocates say that provision is simple common sense.

"There's no replacement for flight hours, for experience," said Gail Dunham, executive director of the National Air Disaster Alliance, a safety group.

Sullenberger agreed.

If someone has only a few hundred hours of flight experience, "it means that in learning to fly, they likely have seen only one cycle of the seasons of the year as a pilot – only one spring with gusty crosswinds, only one summer filled with thunderstorms, only one winter of ice and snow," Sullenberger said. "They may never have had an airplane be de-iced. And if they fly in a fair weather state like Arizona or sometimes Florida, they might not have even flown in a cloud."

But other aviation experts worry the 1,500-hour requirement puts too much emphasis on the quantity, rather than the quality, of a pilot's flight experience.

"We've always said the best measures are knowledge and flying skills," said Mark Millam, a vice president at the industry-backed Flight Safety Foundation.

The airlines say the 1,500-hour rule created a pilot shortage by narrowing the pool of prospective hires. At a forum last June, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao agreed.

"There is this side effect, unanticipated, corollary impact of reducing the number of pilots – pilots who can very safely fly in our sky," she said.

A change in the 1,500-hour rule probably won't emerge from Congress. Schumer blocked such efforts and vows to do so for as long as he's in Congress. But he and the families worry the FAA could weaken the experience requirement on its own.

The families also remain frustrated that the FAA hasn't completed the last key change required under the aviation safety law: a pilot records database that would alert airlines when a prospective hire has a flight record as shoddy as the one the Flight 3407 pilot had.

"There is no good explanation for this repeated foot-dragging," said Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin in the crash.

Asked to explain the delay, the FAA said it has been testing the database, only to find that some users have problems registering.

"Our Information Technology office is examining this issue, including a software vendor change and an alternate registration process," the FAA said.

In other words, it looks like the Flight 3407 families will have reasons to come to Washington long after the crash's 10th anniversary.

When they do, they'll come with data showing all those aviation fatalities in the 1990s and 2000s – and the lack of fatalities in this decade – as well as a short and sweet message about the law they got passed.

"We have two words," said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, Sept. 11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash. "'It's working.'"

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