WASHINGTON – Showing no alarm, the captain and his first officer chatted about the ice on their plane’s windshield and wings, making light of their shared concerns about flying in wintry weather as they sped toward Buffalo, N.Y., on the night of Feb. 12.
Minutes later, pilot Marvin Renslow said “Jesus Christ,” and Rebecca Shaw screamed as Continental Connection Flight 3407 plunged to the ground, landing on a house in a fiery crash. All 49 people aboard and one man on the ground were killed.
The haunting transcript of the plane’s final moments — preserved by the cockpit voice recorder — was released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board at the start of a three-day public hearing to examine safety issues raised by the crash.
Among those issues are whether Renslow and Shaw responded properly to warnings that the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop, was nearing a stall.
In response to questioning from board members, officials from Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental, acknowledged the two apparently weren’t paying close attention to the aircraft’s instruments and failed to follow the airline’s procedures for handling an impeding stall in the final minutes of the flight.
“I believe Captain Renslow did have intentions of landing safely at Buffalo, as well as first officer Shaw, but obviously in those last few moments … the flight instruments were not being monitored, and that’s an indication of a lack of situational awareness,” said John Barrett, Colgan’s director of flight standards.
About the time the two first remarked to each other about the ice, the plane was descending from 11,000 feet and had received permission from air traffic controllers to go as low as 4,000 feet in preparation for landing. Federal regulations prohibit nonessential cockpit conversations below 10,000 feet.
“It’s lots of ice,” Shaw said.
“Oh yeah, that’s the most I’ve seen, most ice I’ve seen on the leading edges in a long time, in a while anyway I should say,” Renslow replied.
Renslow then remarked that he’d flown about 625 hours in the region before he was hired for this job by Colgan.
Shaw replied, “I really wouldn’t mind going through a a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain. … I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any. I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’d've freaked out. I’d've have like seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.’”
“I would’ve been fine,” Renslow replied. “I would have survived it. There wasn’t, we never had to make decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to make but … now I’m more comfortable.”
The crew then lowers the landing gear and adjusts the airplane’s flaps, but at 10:16.26 p.m. there’s a sound similar to movement of the flap handle, according to the transcript, and Shaw says, “Uhhh.”
Less than a second later, there are sounds similar to the stick shaker — a warning transmitted through the control stick that the aircraft is nearing a stall. These last for 6.7 seconds. Then a horn sounds signaling the autopilot disconnecting, and that horn continues until the end of the recording.
Three seconds later, there’s a click followed by the sound of increased engine power, according to the transcript.
At 10:16.34.8, Renslow says, “Jesus Christ.”
Shaw says she has put the flaps up and asks if she should put the landing gear up. Renslow replies: “Gear up, oh (expletive).”
As noise in the cockpit increases. Renslow says: “We’re down.”
There’s a thump.
Shaw: “We (sound of scream).”
With that entry at 10:16.52, the transcript ends.
NTSB documents indicate that after the stick shaker went off, Renslow increased air speed and pulled back on the control column in an apparent attempt to bring the plane’s nose up. Instead the plane began to pitch and roll. Aviation experts said the proper response would be to push forward, pointing the nose down slightly or to keep level.
Within moments the plane’s stick pusher kicked in. That’s an automatic safety system that points the plane’s nose downward in a stall to build up enough speed so the plane can be guided to a recovery.
Shaw also retracted the plane’s flaps. An expert on stall recovery working for the plane’s manufacturer, Wally Warner, told the board retracting the flaps would significantly increase the potential for a “secondary stall” and make it harder to recover.
“Did the crew do anything right post stick shaker?” asked board member Debbie Hersman.
It was correct to increase air speed, Warner responded.
Asked if a crew could have recovered from the stall experienced by Flight 3407, Paul Pryor — Colgan’s head of pilot training — replied simply: “Yes.”
The board is holding the public hearing a mere three months after the crash to probe safety issues that have arisen during its investigation rather than wait the year or more that such investigations typically take. A second hearing will be conducted when the investigation is complete.
All four of the board’s members were present, underscoring the seriousness of their concerns. The board hasn’t held such an “en banc” public hearing in more than five years.
A top concern is the training Renslow received from Colgan. He failed several training tests before and after being hired by Colgan in 2005. He had been certified to fly the Dash-8 plane for about three months. Pryor acknowledged Renslow didn’t have any hands-on training on the Dash 8′s stick pusher, although he had received hands-on stick pusher training on a smaller plane that he previously flew.
Renslow received his commercial pilot’s license in 2002. He had 3,379 hours of flight time, 110 hours on the Dash 8.
Associated Press Writers Michael J. Sniffen in Washington, Ben Dobbin in Rochester and Rik Stevens in Albany contributed to this story.
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