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Pilots in Buffalo crash spoke of ice buildup

Just seconds before the worst U.S. air crash in more than seven years, the pilot exclaimed "Jesus Christ" and moments later his co-pilot screamed as Flight 3407 plunged to the ground.
Image: family members of the victims of the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407
Relatives of victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407 were among those attending a public hearing Tuesday at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C.Robert Giroux / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just seconds before the worst U.S. air crash in more than seven years, the pilot exclaimed "Jesus Christ" and moments later his co-pilot screamed as Flight 3407 plunged to the ground.

A cockpit voice recorder transcript released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board shows that only minutes before the Feb. 12 crash on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in upstate New York Capt. Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw chatted about her career and shared their fear of flying in icy weather.

Moments later the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop, experienced an aerodynamic stall and plunged into a house, killing all 49 people aboard and one man on the ground.

The transcript was released as the safety board opened a three-day public hearing Tuesday into the accident. The board was expected to focus heavily on pilot training and fatigue.

As the Dash-8 approached Buffalo on a wintry night, Shaw and Renslow remarked to each other — less than seven minutes before the crash — about how much ice had formed on their wings.

"It's lots of ice," Shaw said.

"Oh yeah that's the most I've seen, most ice I've seen on the leading edges in a long time, in a while anyway I should say," Renslow replied.

Renslow then remarked that he'd flown about 625 hours in the region before he was hired for this job by Colgan Air.

Talk of crashing
Shaw replied, "I really wouldn't mind going through a a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain. ... I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced. I've never seen any. I've never experienced any of that. I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I'dve freaked out. I'dve have like seen this much ice and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.'"

"I would've been fine," Renslow replied. "I would have survived it. There wasn't, we never had to make decisions that I wouldn't have been able to make but ... now I'm more comfortable."

The crew then lowers the landing gear and adjusts the flaps, but at 10:16.26 p.m. there's a sound similar to movement of the flap handle and Shaw says, "Uhhh."

Less than a second later, there are sounds similar to the stick shaker — a warning transmitted through the control stick that the aircraft is nearing a stall. These last for 6.7 seconds. Less than a second later, a horn sounds signaling the autopilot disconnecting and that horn continues until the end of the recording.

At 10:16.34.8, Renslow says, "Jesus Christ."

Shaw says she put the flaps up and asked if she should put the landing gear up. Renslow replies: "Gear up, oh (expletive)."

As noise in the cockpit increases, Renslow adds: "We're down."

There's a thump.

Shaw: "We (sound of scream)."

And the transcript ends.

Renslow called 'slow learning'
The board also released documents showing that safety investigators were told by one training instructor that Renslow "was slow learning" the Dash 8 but his abilities "picked up at the end."

The training instructor said Renslow struggled to learn the Dash 8's flight management system, a critical computer, and had difficulty learning switch positions which were opposite from the throws he had been used to on another aircraft. This instructor described the captain's decision-making abilities as very good.

A check airman who flew with the captain in December said he flew very well and had good skills, and while he was still learning the flight management system, it was a normal progression.

Colgan Air acknowledged Monday that Renslow's training for the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier didn't include a demonstration or simulation of the stick-pusher system. It noted that the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require a simulator demonstration of the stick-pusher and added that Renslow "had all the training and experience required to safely operate the Q400."

A stick-pusher automatically kicks in when a plane is going into a stall, pointing the aircraft's nose down so it can pick up enough speed to allow the pilot to guide it to a recovery.

However, Renslow pulled back on the plane's control column, apparently trying to bring the aircraft out of the dive by raising the nose up. Pushing forward to gain speed is the proper procedure if the aircraft is in a stall caused by a disruption of airflow over the wings. But in a less common tail stall, pulling back would be the appropriate response.

The activation of a stick pusher can be a jarring experience for any pilot, especially if the pilot has never experienced it before, said William Waldock, an aviation science professor at Embry-Riddle University in Prescott, Ariz. The natural response is to pull back unless you've been trained through repetition to push forward, he said.

Flight 3407 experienced an aerodynamic stall after the control column was pulled back. The plane repeatedly rolled left, and then right and then plunged from the sky, landing on a house about five miles from the airport.

The NTSB recommended two years ago that the FAA study whether pilot training on stick-pushers should be improved. It appears the agency didn't change its guidance on stick-pusher training when it revised its training manual last fall on how to recover from a stall, sources said. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency places its emphasis on teaching pilots on how to avoid getting into a situation where a stall occurs, rather than how to recover from one.