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Flight 3407, Part III
I have written on the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, and some of the issues that have arisen in two of my past three columns for this space. Seeing as how the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Mark V. Rosenker, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security; Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on June 10, 2009, I thought I would wrap this story up with some comments of Mr. Rosenker’s that tie into my previous work, particularly on the subject of pilots commuting to their base of operations.
“The investigation (of Flight 3407) is also exploring how commuting may have affected the pilots’ performance. Both pilots were based in Newark, New Jersey, but lived outside of the Newark area. The captain commuted to Newark from Tampa, Florida, three days before the accident, and spent the night in Colgan’s operations room the night before the accident. The first officer commuted from Seattle, Washington, on a ‘red eye’ flight the night before the accident. She did not arrive into Newark until 6:30 a.m. the day of the accident flight, and there is evidence that she spent the day in the crew room.
“Of the 137 Colgan pilots based at Newark in April 2009, 93 identified themselves as commuters. Forty-nine pilots have a commute greater than 400 miles, with 29 of these pilots living more than 1000 miles away.
“During post-accident interviews, the Newark regional chief pilot said no restrictions were placed on pilots regarding commuting, but pilots had to meet schedule requirements. Colgan has a commuting policy that is outlined in its Flight Crewmember Policy Handbook. The handbook states ‘a commuting pilot is expected to report for duty in a timely manner.’ A previous edition of the handbook stated that flight crewmembers should not attempt to commute to their base on the same day they are scheduled to work. This statement is not in the current handbook edition. Additionally, Colgan’s procedures do not allow pilots to sleep in the operations room.
“The investigation is examining whether conversations inconsistent with the sterile cockpit rule (which prohibits crew members from engaging in non-essential conversation below 10,000 feet) impacted the pilots’ situational awareness of the decreasing airspeed. For example, there was a 3-minute discussion on the crew’s experience in icing conditions and training; this conversation occurred just a few minutes before the stick shaker activated and while the crew was executing the approach checklist.
“Another issue that the investigation is pursuing is whether fatigue may have affected the flight crew’s performance. We know that on the day of the accident, the captain logged into Colgan’s crew scheduling computer system at 3:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. And we know that the first officer commuted to Newark on an overnight flight and was sending and receiving text messages periodically the day of the accident.
“At the time of the accident, Colgan had a fatigue policy in place. The fatigue policy was covered in the basic indoctrination ground school. Colgan did not provide specific guidance to its pilots on fatigue management.
“On April 29, 2009, Colgan issued an operations bulletin on crewmember fatigue. The bulletin reiterated the company’s fatigue policy and provided information to crewmembers on what causes fatigue, how to recognize the signs of fatigue, how fatigue affects performance, and how to combat fatigue by properly utilizing periods of rest….
“Of the six aviation issues currently on the Most Wanted List, two issue areas are in some manner related to the Colgan investigation….
“[Regarding human fatigue]…In 1995, the FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that addressed many of the issues identified by the NTSB. That NPRM was controversial and encountered considerable opposition. The FAA later withdrew the NPRM and has not proposed any further revision to existing flight and duty time regulations. The regulations have not been significantly revised in over 50 years, although there has been substantial scientific-based research over that time frame that the NTSB believes supports changes in the existing flight and duty time regulations.”
One final worrisome note, the NTSB is concerned “that flight crews are not recognizing stalls and are not applying aggressive recovery procedures,” as was the case with Flight 3407 and two other incidents; “the October 14, 2004, accident in which a Bombardier CL-600 crashed in Jefferson City, Missouri, when the flight crew was unable to recover after both engines flamed out as the result of a pilot-induced aerodynamic stall. Another example occurred during a December 22, 1996, accident in which a Douglas DC-8 experienced an uncontrolled flight into terrain in Narrows, Virginia, after the flying pilot applied inappropriate control inputs during a stall recovery attempt and the nonflying pilot failed to recognize, address, and correct these inappropriate control inputs.”
The FAA is now examining whether to regulate airplane pilots’ commuting, training, and unnecessary cockpit chatter. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) called the crash of Flight 3407 “a stunning set of failures.” “Is it just something that is Byzantine and unusual to that cockpit? Or is it a harbinger of something that is much broader?”