Families to Mourn Crash Victims as Investigations Continue

Many questions remain about what caused the crash that killed 50 people.

Feb. 16, 2009— -- 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.

"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.

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."

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.

"The FAA sees things a little differently than we do," Chealander said.

Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental, recommends its crews fly the plane themselves, without the autopilot, in icy weather. It requires pilots to hand-fly the plane if icing is severe. Chealander added that, as of now, it does not appear that the icing was so severe it would have mandated the pilots to turn off the autopilot. That is something the board continues to investigate.

Ice buildup on the aircraft can be challenging for even the most experienced pilot, according to flight instructor Bill Miller of the Buffalo Lancaster Regional Airport.

"Icing alters the design characteristics of the airplane," Miller said. "The pilot really becomes a test pilot at that point."

Pilot Probe

As with any accident, investigators will also examine the experience of the crew.

Capt. Marvin Renslow had flown more than 3,000 hours with Colgan Air but the 47-year-old pilot had only two months' experience at the controls of the accident aircraft. First Officer Rebecca Shaw, 24, had flown more than 2,000 hours with Colgan Air and had 774 hours' experience in the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop.

"How are these crew trained?" consultant Nance said. "What are the specific company regulations? What are the experience level in icy conditions that these two pilots have been exposed to? All of that is very germane."

Former crash investigator Feith said, "If both crew members don't have a lot of experience and now all of a sudden they are presented with a catastrophic event taking place or an extremely abnormal situation, they may not have the experience to draw on to remedy the situation in a very timely manner."

Investigators will be looking at whether the crew allowed the plane's speed to get too low, so low the plane was in danger of stalling.

As the investigations continued, a community memorial service was held to commemorate the victims. On Sunday, local residents gathered at a church a few blocks from the accident site to mourn the victims and marvel at their own close calls.

"Today meant a lot so we could pray for the families and the people that were lost, " Clarence Center, N.Y., resident Dan Vecchico said. "And it affected us too because it flew right over our house. And we heard it crash and we heard it fly over the house. So it's impacted our family quite a bit too. And it's going to take some time to get over it."