Pilot Error to Blame in Deadly Flight Accident Last February

NTSB Report Highlights Major Safety Lapses, Sheds Light on Regional Carriers

ByABC News
February 2, 2010, 7:55 AM

Feb. 2, 2010— -- Pilot error was one of the chief causes that led to the deadly crash of Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, last February, federal investigators said today.

The National Transportation Safety Board met today to discuss the findings from the report on the crash, which killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground when the plane slammed into a house as it approached the airport near Buffalo, N.Y.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said it was the pilots' "complacency and confusion that resulted in catastrophe," and more importantly, the safety issues involved in the crash still have not been fixed.

"These are issues that we have seen time and time again, and unfortunately it has taken 50 lives for us to focus additional attention on these issues that have not been addressed," Hersman said.

In the cockpit that night, Capt. Marvin Renslow did not notice that the plane's speed was dropping dangerously low. When cockpit warnings indicated the plane was about to stall, instead of pushing what is called the stick shaker forward to increase speed, Renslow pulled it backwards multiple times. The second in command, First Officer Rebecca Shaw, may not have been experienced enough to respond right away, investigators said.

"That is very unusual behavior, and quite frankly, I can't explain it," said Tom Haueter, director of NTSB's office of aviation safety.

"It wasn't a split-second thing," NTSB Safety Investigator Roger Cox added. "I think there was time to evaluate the situation and initiate a recovery, but I can't give you a number of seconds."

Colgan today said the two pilots manning the plane were given proper training, and that the airline has taken a number of steps since the deadly accident to ensure its equipment is upgraded and personnel properly trained.

"By all accounts, Captain Renslow and First Officer Shaw were fine people," Colgan spokesman Joe Williams said in a written statement. "But they knew what to do in the situation they faced that night a year ago, had repeatedly demonstrated they knew what to do, and yet did not do it. We cannot speculate on why they did not use their training in dealing with the situation they faced."

The NTSB report highlights major safety lapses by commuter airlines.

As expected, the board today sharply criticized the regional airline industry, which is suffering from serious shortcomings, using pilots with too little experience, inadequate training, low wages, long commutes and suffering from fatigue. The NTSB is also likely to take the Federal Aviation Administration to task for its oversight of the industry.

The NTSB issued 20 safety recommendations to avoid such disasters in the future but not a single regulation was released today.

Should Regional Airline Safety Be Improved? ABC News Wants to Hear from You.

The Colgan Air crash highlights a major dilemma facing regional airlines. While they are subjected to the same rules and regulations as large carriers, who they often codeshare with, their earnings are lower and hence they pay their pilots less, have a less thorough evaluation process and often make their staff work the maximum number of hours allowed.

The two pilots of the Colgan Air flight both had traveled from Seattle and Tampa, Fla., to Newark, N.J., before the flight. Capt. Renslow failed several flight checks when getting his pilot's license, but failed to disclose them all to Colgan Air on his application.

Shaw made $22,000 a year and lived with her parents. She commuted across the country regularly to save money.

In the last year, several regional airlines have started hiring pilots with more experience than they did before, according to FltOps.com. The government has promised to raise the minimum number of hours required for a commercial pilot's license -- currently it's 250 hours -- but that has not happened yet either. Additionally, there hasn't been any new regulation addressing pilot fatigue.

In terms of salaries, here hasn't been a significant shift for pilots hired at regional airlines, reports jetjob.com, which tracks jobs in the aviation industry. The starting pay for these pilots is as low as $18,300 a year.

Authorities say the Colgan Air crash has overall heightened the sense of awareness of these issues, but it will take a long time to implement the needed changes.

The FAA issued a "call to action" last year to ramp up airline safety and pilot training efforts but those actions are all voluntary, and it could take years to draft new safety regulations. The FAA increased inspection of remedial training, which all airlines now have, but the actual regulations could be two years away.

"There have been some changes. Not great large changes, but there have been some changes," said Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "Some of the companies are really proactive, have worked with our pilot groups and are starting to improve their training and look into the training."