Transcript: Pilots joked, talked shop before Buffalo crash

ByAlan Levin, USA TODAY
May 12, 2009, 5:21 PM

WASHINGTON -- In the minutes before their commuter plane gyrated out of control near Buffalo, the pilots of a Continental Connection flight joked and talked about work conditions — distractions that were forbidden under federal law.

The cockpit recording released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board offers some of the first clues that could help explain why the pilots allowed the plane to get too slow and then apparently tugged the plane into a sudden, fatal climb.

It shows that the pilots were perhaps inattentive during a critical phase of the flight as they prepared to land. Other evidence released by the safety board suggests they may also have suffered from lack of sleep and inadequate training.

Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, urged co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, who had complained that she was not feeling well, to pop her ears seven minutes before the crash.

"Yeah, I wanta make 'em pop," she replied, laughing, according to the transcript of the sounds in the cockpit. Federal aviation regulations forbid any non-work related conversation during an approach to landing.

The crash on Feb. 12 in Clarence Center, N.Y., killed all 49 people aboard the flight and a man in a house struck by the plane — the first fatalities on a mid- or large-size airline in nearly 2 ½ ears.

The investigation has uncovered numerous safety issues. The three-day hearing this week is expected to explore topics ranging from whether the pilots were qualified to the airline's lack of training on stall warning systems.

According to NTSB documents:

•Both pilots may not have gotten adequate rest before the flight. Shaw had taken an overnight flight from Seattle before reporting to work. Renslow logged into an airline computer system at 3 a.m. on the morning of the crash.

• Renslow had failed four FAA check flights to determine whether he was qualified to fly. He also failed an airline check. He was able to pass each of the checks after retaking the test.

• Investigators found that pilots had not been trained how to use a safety device that attempted to save the pilots as they went out of control. Known as a "stick pusher," it automatically pushes a plane's nose down to pick up speed when it gets dangerously slow. When it activated, Renslow overrode it, keeping the nose pointed skyward.

Because of training issues such as this, it would be wrong to simply blame the pilots for the crash, the union for the pilots said. The pilots were employed by Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental.

"I think there was some element of surprise in this because they were never trained for it," said Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Colgan issued a statement saying that the pilots had been trained under a federally approved program.

As they neared Buffalo on a snowy night, neither pilot realized that they had reduced the power to a dangerously low setting, according to the recording and other data released by the safety board.

The plane lost 57 mph in less than 30 seconds, slowing well below the airline's required minimum speed of 166 mph during icing conditions.

What happened next doomed the flight. The plane's "stick shaker" — the device that warns pilots when a plane gets too slow — activated, violently vibrating the control column.

Instead of adding power and lowering the plane's nose as pilots are taught, Renslow pulled the plane into a climb that slowed it even further.

"Jesus Christ," he said.

As Renslow struggled with the controls, Shaw tried to help by resetting flaps on the plane's wings and retracting the landing gear.

"Gear up, oh (expletive)," she said.

By this time, the plane's wings were no longer keeping the plane aloft — known as an aerodynamic stall — and it was rolling violently from side to side and plunging toward the ground.

"We're down," Renslow said in the final seconds before the recording ended. "We're…."

The final sound on the recording was a scream by Shaw, the NTSB reported.