Families to Mourn Crash Victims as Investigations Continue

It is an especially somber day at the crash site of flight 3407 today as family members of the dead take part in a memorial service and get their first opportunity to see the spot where the Continental Express flight to Buffalo, N.Y., went down last week.

In the meantime, investigators now know more about the final, terrifying moments of the flight, as it rolled and twisted to the ground, killing 50 people.

Everything was normal after the takeoff from New Jersey's Newark International Airport, until 26 seconds before impact. In the cockpit, the crew was preparing for a typical landing. It would have been a busy time.

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"They are going through final checklists," pilot and former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Greg Feith said. "If the wind is blowing, they are trying to control that airplane and that turbulence. They have to make sure that they are meeting all of their minimum altitudes for the approach. And they are talking to air traffic control."

The crew had lowered the landing gear and were beginning to extend the wing flaps to slow the twin engine turboprop down, investigators say. Suddenly, an alert sounded, warning that the plane was about to suffer an aerodynamic stall. The crew had been flying the plane on autopilot, which automatically turns off with the stall warning. Then began the unexplained and horrifying fall from the sky.

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The plane's nose lurched upward 31 degrees, then fell 45 degrees nose down. The plane rolled left, then dramatically to the right, partly upside down.

Investigators say the pilots were trying to recover, pushing engine power to the maximum setting in an attempt to right the plane and get it flying again. But they were only 1,600 feet above the ground when the upset began. The plane plummeted 800 feet in five seconds, 16 times faster than a normal descent. It smashed into a house on the ground, killing the homeowner, and all 49 on board the plane.

There was little time, or altitude, to recover. "The crew has to be basically recognizing whatever event is taking place," Feith said. "They not only have to recognize it, they have to assimilate what is going on and then determine what appropriate course of action is necessary. You are doing that in microseconds."

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Ice to Blame?

It is still far from clear what brought down the plane. One focus of the investigation is icing. On the cockpit voice recorder, pilots talk about seeing significant icing on the leading edges of the wing. Investigators with the transportation board say the crew turned on the sophisticated de-icing system in plenty of time to deal with the weather.

"They turned it on 11 minutes after the departure from Newark," NTSB board member Steve Chealander said. "And it remained on the rest of the flight."

The crew also turned on a stall protection system, which gives pilots an extra early alert if the plane might stall.

One key question is should the pilots have been using the autopilot in icy conditions?

"What you don't have is the ability to feel the plane," pilot and ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said. "Where you might have ice, you are probably going to want to hand-fly it to make sure she is feeling right and you can feel the airplane as it begins to do squirrelly things."

The transportation board recommends pilots turn off or minimize use of the autopilot in icy conditions but the Federal Aviation Administration has not mandated that.

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