May 12, 2009 -- 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."
Questions About Renslow's Training and Competency
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.
Pilots fail flight tests from time to time, but some safety experts say depending on why he failed those tests, it may have raised a red flag.
But not everyone blamed Renslow today.
"Every pilot out there would have some sort of disapproval, maybe not have a stellar track record," Feith said. "That doesn't mean they're a bad pilot."
Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Airline Pilot's Association, also said a bad economy also means pilots may not be getting all the training they need.
"Because of the cost constraints on these carriers and the need to feed the larger network carriers, we're seeing training being pushed down. More and more training is being cut because of the cost."
Indeed, safety experts wonder whether the concerns raised in the crash investigation are unique to Colgan Air or symptoms of a broader problem with the regional airlines that millions of American fly.
"I've given them my assurance that we will not let anything rest until we're satisfied that a full investigation of why 3407 crashed," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., meeting with some of the families today on Capitol Hill.
"This was a small plane, small numbers and we feel like we have some really heavy lifting to do to be heard," Karen Eckert, whose sister Beverly died in the crash, told ABC News Monday.
Colgan Air Defends Its Pilot and Training Practices
Colgan Air said it did not know about all the earlier failures when it hired Renslow. But the airline defended the pilot this week, citing his qualifications and hours in the air. The airline said he was "fully qualified" to fly, having passed "six consecutive check rides" in the months before the accident.
"At the time of this accident, Captain Renslow was fully qualified in the Q400 and held an Airline Transport Pilot Type Certificate for that aircraft, the highest level of certification the FAA offers on any aircraft," the airline said in a statement.
Colgan added that Renslow's last unsatisfactory flight test occurred 16 months before the crash.
Colgan Air also defended its training, which it says is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"All pilots are taught how to recover from a stall in the earliest stages of their private-pilot training," Colgan's statement said. "The technique in the Q400 is not substantively different from any other aircraft."
"Of course, crew performance is a primary issue but bigger than that is the equipment that could have been and should have been installed on this particular airplane that could have prevented this event," Feith said.
Feith, who is consulting with an attorney who is representing families in the accident. said that equip ment would have given an oral warning that the speed was getting dangerously low.
Crash Investigators Examine the Fatigue Factor
Another key issue in the investigation is whether fatigue among crew members played a part.
Shaw took the red eye flights from her home in Seattle the night before to show up to work at Newark. Renslow had logged onto the company computer at 3 a.m. and again at 7:30 a.m. Both were seen trying to nap on crew room couches in the morning.
"When you heard the summary this morning of the two pilots involved in this accident, their commuting and their levels of sleep and preparedness before they got into the aircraft," said acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker. "We are looking at that very closely to see what kind of implications that had and we'll be studying that over the next three days to try and get some answers."
"If there was a fatigue issue with the flight crew, it was not due to their work schedule, which provided rest periods far in excess of FAA requirements," Colgan Air said.
"Flying fatigued or sick is not an option," Colgan's statement read. "Every Colgan Air pilot has an absolute obligation as a professional to show up for work fit for duty."
Colgan's statement said Renslow had nearly 22 hours off before coming to work the day of the crash, nearly three times the rest time required by the FAA.
ABC News' Kate Barrett contributed to this report.