Feroleto Law, Buffalo NY

Continental Airlines Flight 3407

Unfortunately, on February 12, 2009, a plane crashed before landing at the Buffalo Niagara International airport.

The airplane that crashed was a bombardier Dash 8-Q400 twin-engine turboprop. Continental Flight 3407 was operated by Colgan Air, Inc. The path of the aircraft’s flight took it through weather that was conducive to ice formation in the Buffalo area. No distress calls from the crew were received.

Flight 3407 was on autopilot during the approach to the Buffalo airport, according to NTSB reports. Before the plane departed, the crew also discussed ice buildup. In 2005, use of an autopilot in icy conditions contributed to a near accident involving a Dash 8. The reliance upon autopilot during approach has been significant in ice related accidents in the past.

Flight 3407’s airplane deicing mechanism consisted of a rubber boot for deicing the wing, tail, and engine intakes by a pneumatic system, with electric deicing for the propeller blades and warning system. The use of autopilot is discouraged in moderate icing conditions, in that it will conceal a building ice situation. The flight crew may not notice that the autopilot is moving the control surfaces of the airplane to keep the airplane in normal flight parameters as an adjustment for accumulating ice. A pilot, however, will be able to feel the effects ice is having on the airplane when it is flown manually. The crew then can decide whether they need to fly out of the icy conditions. In the past, the FAA has been criticized by the NTSB for not addressing icing problems. This includes several Air Worthiness Directives regarding icing, which one of which applied to the Dash 8 series of airplanes. Flight 3407 was not equipped with an automatic deicing system, which the FAA proposed as a requirement for these types of planes.

In this particular instance, the crew lowered the landing gear and wing flaps. It was after this that the airspeed declined, causing the plane’s system to issue a stall warning and a “stick-pusher.” This resulted in the plane automatically moving the pilot’s control yoke forward to lower the nose of the plane, which is done to recover from a wing stall. It is believed the stick was then manually pulled back and the throttle was increased to full power, pitching the airplane’s nose up. This resulted in the stall which caused the plane to whip left and then enter a steep right turn, losing altitude significantly.

The training and the experience of the pilot in Flight 3407 is being brought into question. Different types of aircraft have different procedures to follow in the case of a stall. In fact, the actions of the pilot may have been proper for other types of aircraft for which he was trained, but not the Dash 8. This crash also raises concerns regarding the different types of stalls that airplanes can suffer.

The procedure for a wing stall is to drop the nose and add power to regain speed and lift. It may also have been experiencing a tail-induced stall, which can cause the plane to pitch down and is often encountered after a pilot employs the flaps. The procedure for a tail-induced stall is different than a regular stall, which would require putting up the flaps and pulling up on the controls.

The pilot of Flight 3407 had most of his experience in a different airplane that was susceptible to a tail stall, but relatively little experience on a Dash 8, which is not likely to be susceptible to tail stalls. If the pilot did pull up on the controls and add power, it would seem as if he did not know what kind of stall he was having or did not react correctly to the stall. The low air speed and tail warnings would most likely require that the nose be dropped and power added.

It has been recently reported that aviation regulators for years have ignored federal officials’ demand for better deicing protocols. A 1994 crash of similar type turboprop killed 68 people. Following that crash, the NTSB asked for increased research regarding deicing systems and for revised requirements for aircraft certification. However, the NTSB says none of these changes has ever gone into effect.

It has also recently been reported that two airlines stopped flights of prop planes in cold weather after a deadly crash similar to Flight 3407. Officials said that the lessons of such earlier crashes should have prevented a further tragedy. Other carriers ended their cold weather use of turbo prop planes partly out of safety concerns.

Colgan Air however still flies turboprops from Newark to Buffalo. The former Chairman of the NTSB reported that “what made this crash more than tragic was that it was foreseeable and likely preventable if not for the preference of profit over safety in some of the aviation industry and for the lax oversight of the FAA in its failure to adequately address the known safety risks related to icing.” Comair abandoned turbo props after a January 9, 1997 flight from Cincinnati to Detroit nose-dived eighteen miles away from the runway, killing all twenty-nine people aboard. Comair then used regional commuter jets. After that crash, the NTSB issued a report holding the FAA responsible due to its failure to establish adequate airline certification and standards for flight in icing conditions. The report also blamed the FAA for failure to enforce proper deicing procedures according to the February 18, 2009, edition of the Buffalo News.

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