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Role of Icing in Plane Crashes

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Buffalo, NYWith 3 major plane crashes in the news in recent months, the media has once again been focusing on what factors play into an airplane crash. One factor that is frequently cited as a probable cause of a plane crash is icing. However, as some experts note, there is rarely just one factor involved in airplane crashes. Normally, a number of factors converge prior to a plane crash, sometimes with tragic results.

Airplane De-IcingConsider, for example, Continental Airlines Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, New York. Initial reports indicated that icing might have been a significant factor in the plane crash. However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a statement that icing was not a major factor in the tragedy. What the NTSB did say was that one of pilots reacted to an alert that the plane was about lose sufficient lift by pulling the plane's nose up. Within seconds, the plane began to roll and then plummeted to the ground, crashing into a house. Forty-nine people on the plane and 1 person in the house died in that crash.

Based on this information, it is reasonable to believe that the pilot may have reacted incorrectly to the plane's loss of lift—making pilot error a probable cause of the plane crash. However, something had to happen to force the pilot to react—something had to cause the plane to lose sufficient lift. It is entirely possible that the something that set off the tragic chain of events was icing.

So, once again it appears that a combination of factors played a role in the plane's crash, although official reports will not be released until after the NTSB holds a public hearing into the incident.

We already know that there was at least some ice accumulated on the plane; records show the flight crew discussed "significant" icing. We also know that ice accumulation can change how a plane flies and how the plane handles. Finally, we know that in icing conditions officials recommend that pilots hand-fly their planes rather than using autopilot, so that they have a better sense of how the plane is handling. Early reports indicate that the Continental flight was on autopilot until just prior to the plane crash.

Despite the NTSB's announcement that icing was not a significant factor in the plane crash, the NTSB does include icing on its "most wanted" transportation safety recommendations. Obviously, the NTSB does consider icing to be a significant factor in enough air travel incidents that it wants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action to reduce the danger of icing. Although the FAA has responded to most of the NTSB's recommendations, regulators say that the FAA could do more to reduce the impact of icing on planes.

Now that the NTSB has said icing was not a major factor in the Buffalo plane crash, many people believe that icing was not a factor at all, but it still may have been. Icing may have been the factor that caused the plane's stall alert to go off, causing the pilot to react (either correctly or incorrectly) by pulling up the plane's nose and ultimately resulting in tragedy.

It is vital to know what factors caused the crash of Flight 3407 to prevent a similar crash from happening in the future. While pilot error may have been the ultimate cause of the crash, investigators must still consider what caused the plane to lose lift, so that pilots are not put in the position of having to respond to such an occurrence again and again. Furthermore, even if pilot error is to blame, that leads to a number of other considerations, including pilot fatigue and improper training.

While it may be a long time before we know exactly what caused this tragedy, families are still dealing with the grief of losing their loved ones. They are speaking with attorneys to weigh their legal options, holding out hope that someone will be held responsible for a crash that took so many lives.

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