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A Year After Buffalo Plane Crash, Questions Remain

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Clarence Center, NYIt has been a year since an apparently uneventful commuter flight from Newark shocked the country by mismanaging its flying speed, ignoring various warning signs and literally dropping onto a house. One occupant of the house and everyone aboard Continental Connection Flight 3407 was killed in the plane crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) meets today to consider and formalize a final report on the February 12, 2009 plane accident. There were no reports of mechanical malfunction with the Canadian-made Dash-8 twin engine turbo prop commuter plane, but questions have been raised with regard to the pilot and first officer.

When the NTSB last met in May, it considered evidence that the crew on the flight operated by Colgan Air had not been adequately trained. Pilot Marvin Renslow, 47, had failed more performance checks than the airline was aware of. Early in the investigation of crash it was revealed that the pilot had failed five performance checks over the course of his flying career, although his employer only knew of three. According to a 1/31/10 report in the New York Times, Colgan said that had it known about Renslow's record, it would not have hired him.

The young first officer, Rebecca Shaw, 24, was sick with a cold and presumably tired after a grueling all-night commute to her embarkation point in Newark. She needed two different planes and an all-night commute from the Pacific Northwest (where she still lived at home) to make it to Newark for her flight.

The NTSB has since revealed that Shaw was texting from the flight deck minutes before takeoff. Of the two text messages she sent from the cockpit, the second was dispatched a mere five minutes prior to takeoff. Aviation rules forbid any nonpertient communication in what is known as a "sterile cockpit."

Current rules observed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allow for a first officer to be hired with as little as 250 hours of experience. Since the crash of Flight 3407, some have recommended increasing the minimum to 1500 hours for a first officer or junior pilot, a position endorsed by the unions for major carriers.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, himself a former pilot with Northwest Airlines and the onetime head of the Air Line Pilots Association, has said that it's not so much the flight hours needed to properly qualify a junior pilot or first officer for the cockpit as it is training on specific procedures and issues such as icing.

Investigators initially suspected that icing might have contributed to the crash of Flight 3407. However, other planes flying into Buffalo at about the same time had no difficulty with icing, and the Dash-8's anti-icing systems had been working properly and were switched on early in the flight.

Officials still don't know why the plane was flying so slow as to risk a stall, or why the pilot reacted in a way that would only exacerbate the problem, when he pulled on the yoke at the first warning of a stall to nose the plane up, rather than pushing the yoke forward to nose the plane down, thereby increasing airspeed and corresponding lift.

The debris field indicated that the plane was flying so slow that it fell out of the air like a rock and literally dropped onto the house, rather than flying into it.


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