Lawmakers on Capitol Hill today are investigating the deadly crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which killed 50 people in February near Buffalo, New York.
In a story Monday, the Wall Street Journal cited investigators as saying the crash resulted from pilot Marvin Renslow's incorrect response to the plane's precarious drop in speed: He overrode an emergency system known as a "stick pusher," which sends the plane into a dive so it can regain speed and avoid a stall.
Colgan Air, the operator of Continental Connection flights, said Monday that Renslow had never trained in a flight simulator with the safety system that activated just before the plane went down. Colgan said there is no regulatory requirement that it provide hands-on training with the "stick pusher."
"A stick pusher demonstrated in an aircraft simulator is not required by the FAA," the airline said in a statement. "And thus was not included in Colgan's Q400 training program."
The Federal Aviation Administration said its standards do not require hands-on practice with the safety system.
Greg Feith, a former senior investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, says flight simulation training on this type of system should be required for all pilots. He spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday.
Kiran Chetry: The cockpit voice recorder revealed a conversation took place five minutes before the crash. First Officer Rebecca Shaw said she had “never seen icing conditions.” She said “I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’d have freaked out… I'd have seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.’” She's telling the pilot she's worried about icing conditions. It seems like a scary conversation to be having in the cockpit at the time.
Greg Feith: Absolutely. When you look at the transcript and where that conversation took place being so close to the final event, you have to wonder why their awareness wasn't higher when they first took off and got in to the icing conditions. And one of the things that the NTSB is going to really have to look at is why they breached that sterile cockpit rule. But if you look at the transcript, they talk about ice, and then they go back to their normal conversation. They don't really talk about the flying of the airplane and the approach speeds that they need to be flying.
Chetry: When you say sterile cockpit, it's the FAA rule that forbids any non-flight related talk from happening below 10,000 feet. But we’re hearing casual conversation. People talk about being tired, maybe they should have called out sick. How common is it to hear that casual conversation on an approach?
Feith: Well, we don't really hear it because unless the airplane has an event that the NTSB or the FAA has to investigate, we don't know. But I've ridden in the cockpits, and there is casual conversation that takes place. But it's the discipline here. I mean, you’re in a critical icing situation, you're going to be shooting an approach down to what we call minimums, the weather is very bad. You don't want to be talking about anything other than flight-related duties. And that is the big issue here is they didn't even think about that when - after they talked about ice. They went back to the normal conversation that was non-flight related.
Chetry: Some are saying the critical mistake made was that the captain never was properly trained on the plane's anti-stall “stick pusher.” This is a safety feature that automatically points the plane's nose in to a dive so it gains speed to prevent a stall if it slows down. Pilots are apparently trained they're supposed to push the stick forward to gain speed if it happens. But he apparently yanked back on it at the time, causing the crash. Was this preventable in your opinion?
Feith: Well, when you look at it, Kiran, you have to look at the training program. The training programs in a lot of the airlines don't want you - don't want a pilot ever to get into that stalled condition. So they train you to recognize when the airplane is getting slow and getting in to that stalled condition before it actually gets there. So they want you to recover and be away from it. So, for this pilot not to have gotten the full training of this stick pusher… But the bigger thing here is because he probably knew he was very low to the ground, when the nose went over, his immediate reaction not necessarily to the stall and the proper technique to recover from it, was probably more of an emotional reaction that he knew he was close to the ground and it was an instinctual move to pull the nose back up to level so that he wouldn't hit the ground.
Chetry: Was it the wrong move in your opinion?
Feith: Well right now it's real easy to sit back and say it was the wrong move. But I can understand why he probably did that. He didn't have a full comprehension of what was going on with the airplane. He knew he was close to the ground. All he was trying to do was get it back to level flight.
Chetry: Apparently it's not mandatory at this point to be trained on that in terms of flight simulators versus what you just learn in the books on the ground. Should this be mandatory?
Feith: Absolutely. And I think that pilots, so that they can build the mental modeling and the tactile skill development should be taken all the way through full blown stalls in the simulator because the fidelity of the simulator is pretty good. But they should at least be exposed to it so that they have a total awareness. Don't just take them up and expect them to read about the fact that this is what's going to happen if you do get into a full blown stall.