Nightly News   |  February 02, 2010

Buffalo crash inquiry points to pilot errors

NTSB investigators determined that the pilots in the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York last year had time to act to save the plane from a fatal stall, but didn't. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

WILLIAMS: Good evening.

Newscast: Safety record of commuter airlines

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: If you fly a lot these days, that means you're likely flying on commuter airlines more of the time. They fly under the brand name of the big name carriers a lot of the time, but they're not. Their pilots look the same passing through the airport but often they are not. And the stats are not on their side. Every fatal airline crash since 2001 has involved a commuter airline . Most recently the loss of 50 lives near Buffalo , New York . Today the final report on that crash came out and the inescapable conclusion appears to be it didn't have to happen. It's where we begin tonight with NBC 's Tom Costello in our Washington newsroom. Tom , good evening.

TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi , Brian . The NTSB 's report coming out in record time . Regional airline Colgan Air was flying Flight 3407 for Continental but flying Continental 's logo. Today the NTSB heard evidence that this crew simply wasn't up to the job and it's time for some changes. The NTSB 's investigation into what caused Flight 3407 to crash outside of Buffalo points to a complete breakdown in cockpit discipline and basic piloting. First Officer Rebecca Shaw was texting from the cockpit just five minutes before takeoff, a violation of FAA rules. And during much of the hour-long flight from Newark , Shaw and Captain Marvin Renslow were talking about personal matters, not the flight.

Mr. ROBERT SUMWALT (NTSB Board Member): It was as if the flight was just a means for the captain to conduct a conversation with this young first officer.

COSTELLO: As the plane approached Buffalo , the crew failed to notice their air speed had dropped. When cockpit warnings went off, Captain Renslow , who'd failed multiple FAA tests and check rides, did exactly the wrong thing and pulled the nose up, causing the plane to stall and crash. At NTSB headquarters today, family and friends wore red in remembrance of the 50 people who died, among them Kevin Johnston 's family.

Ms. KATHY JOHNSTON (Crash Victim's Wife): The more I learn, there is a lot of anger and frustration that this has gone on, that they were so incompetent up there.

COSTELLO: Among the NTSB 's findings, crew fatigue, a lack of training, lack of professionalism and maturity, a lack of experience and basic skills all contributed to the crash.

Ms. DEBORAH HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board Chairman): And unfortunately it's taken 50 more lives for us to focus additional attention on these issues that have not been addressed.

COSTELLO: Today, Colgan Air insisted the crew was trained properly but, quote, "We cannot speculate on why they didn't use their training." But with regional airlines involved in the last six fatal accidents, a former NTSB chairman says new pilot hires should be required to have far more cockpit time.

Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman): You can get a job in the regionals with something like 250 to 300 hours. And maybe that's not good enough.

COSTELLO: There's a big push for new pilots to have 1500 hours of cockpit time and much more training, more monitoring. Meanwhile, the NTSB is now planning new hearings into the relationship between the big airlines and the small, regional airlines that fly those code-sharing routes. Brian :

WILLIAMS: What a haunting story for the families of those 50 souls. Tom Costello starting us off in Washington tonight. Tom , thanks.