Nightly News   |  October 22, 2011

Is airline to blame in 2009 plane crash?

New information suggests Colgan Air itself had misgivings about the pilot of a commuter plane that crashed in 2009, killing 50 people. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

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

LESTER HOLT, anchor: Tonight, new questions about what may have led to the crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane near Buffalo almost three years ago. The accident killed 50 people. And tonight there is new information suggesting the airline itself may have had misgivings about the pilot of that plane at least six months before the crash. NBC 's Tom Costello has more.

TOM COSTELLO reporting: Within months of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, flown by Colgan Airlines , investigators zeroed in on the actions of Captain Marvin Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw .

Ms. DEBORAH HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board Chairman): I think this crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 30 seconds.

COSTELLO: Investigators determined the crew's own actions caused the crash. They'd failed to monitor the air speed of the Dash Q400 turbo prop , then when the plane began to stall, Captain Renslow pulled the nose up, causing the plane to crash. Now new emails revealed on a lawsuit suggest that just six months before the crash, Colgan Airlines itself was concerned about Renslow and didn't think he was qualified to upgrade from flying a smaller Saab turbo prop to the bigger Q400 . In one email, a senior manager writes, quote, "You might want to check the training records. There is something in the back of my mind about Renslow ." Colgan 's chief pilot responds, quote, "You are correct. Renslow had a problem upgrading." Then the vice president of operations weighs in, saying, "Anyone that does not meet the minimums and had problems training before is not ready to tackle the Q." The chief pilot replies, "He is already off the list." In fact, Renslow had failed multiple FAA check rides. Yet six months later, he was flying the Q400 that crashed in Buffalo . The attorney for the victims' families calls the emails a smoking gun.

Mr. HUGH RUSS (Attorney): They determined that he was not qualified because he did not have enough experience, he had problems training, he had failed his tests.

COSTELLO: But in a statement, Colgan Airlines ' parent company, Pinnacle Airlines , says Renslow did go on to get the training without any problems, quote, "Captain Renslow was properly trained, certified and qualified under all applicable federal aviation regulations to act as pilot in command of a Q400 aircraft." But the NTSB says Colgan never shared those emails with investigators. Jennifer West , who lost her husband, says it's all further evidence that the crew should've never been flying.

Ms. JENNIFER WEST: It shouldn't have happened, you know, and people get tired of seeing us or hearing us, but they don't live with it every day. They don't see their four or five-year-old daughter saying, 'Where's Daddy?'

COSTELLO: Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.