The crew of a Colgan Air commuter plane that crashed in February near Buffalo, N.Y., was talking about ice build up and casually chatting about their careers in the minutes before the plane fell to the ground, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground, according to cockpit transcripts released today.
Federal law forbids "irrelevant chatter" below 10,000 feet.
"It's been very widespread in a lot of the accidents that have been in the last 10, 15 years, where we have seen crews not really talking about just flight-related duties," pilot and former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Greg Feith said today. "They've been talking about personal things that have momentarily distracted them from the duties of flying."
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The transcripts were released at the start of a three-day public hearing at the National Transportation Safety Board.
Family members of those who died were on hand to listen as investigators rehashed the crash and further explored what caused the plane to plummet just short of the Buffalo airport, killing one person on the ground and all 49 on board.
"Nothing that we do will ever be able to make up for the loss of our loved ones," said Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend Lorin Maurer died in the crash. "But it's our hope that somehow, some way, we can do something small that can make sure no family has to suffer through what we have suffered through in the past three months."
Although the topic of ice dominated the conversation in the cockpit before the crash, investigators in late March deemphasized ice as a major cause of the tragedy. It appears that ice was not what doomed the flight, but rather the fact that the crew preparing for landing allowed the plane to fly dangerously slow just before the accident.
In the cockpit, the plane's controls started to shake as a result, warning that the plane was losing lift and about to stall. Capt. Marvin Renslow then jammed up the power, and inexplicably pulled up the plane's nose – an action that was the opposite of what he should have done. Renslow shouted, "Jesus Christ," 18 seconds before the plane crashed.
"The initial reaction to the stall warning was incorrect and that set the course of action for what followed," Wally Warner, chief engineering test pilot at Bombardier Aircraft Manufacturer, the plane's manufacturer, said today.
A few minutes before the accident, first officer Rebecca Shaw is heard talking to Renslow about ice.
"I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced... I've never experienced any of that," she said. "I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I'd have freaked out. I'd have like seen this much ice and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we were going to crash,'" she said eerily, just minutes before the plane in fact did 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."
In piecing together what went wrong, investigators revealed today that Renslow had failed four flight tests during his career and received an unsatisfactory grade on one.