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Doomed Commuter Plane "Dropped Off" Radar

A commuter plane dropped out of the sky without warning and nose-dived into a suburban Buffalo house in a fiery crash that killed all 49 people aboard and one person in the home. It was the nation's first deadly crash of a commercial airliner in 2½ years.

The cause of the disaster was under investigation, but other pilots were overheard around the same time complaining of ice building up on their wings - a hazard that has caused major crashes in the past.

National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that investigators recovered both the plane's black boxes and plan to send them back to Washington, D.C. for analysis.

The twin turboprop aircraft - Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J. - was coming in for a landing when it went down in light snow and fog around 10:20 p.m. Thursday about five miles short of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Crew members indicated no mechanical problems during the problem and there was little communication between the pilot and air traffic control before the crash, Niagra Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer told the Buffalo News.

"I was told by the tower the plane simply dropped off the radar screen," Hartmayer told the paper.

Witnesses heard the plane sputtering before it plunged squarely through the roof of the house, its tail section visible through flames shooting at least 50 feet high.

"The whole sky was lit up orange," said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile away. "All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook."

Dworak told CBS' The Early Show the home that was hit was "one giant pile of debris on fire," adding that homes in the neighborhood are only 30-to-40 feet apart.

Two others in the house escaped with minor injuries. The plane was carrying a four-member crew and an off-duty pilot. Among the 44 passengers killed was a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and preparing to land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The plane that crashed had been in service for less than two years and had a clean record, reports CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes.

The plane's pilot was identified as Marvin Renslow, who lived in the Tampa suburb of Lutz, Fla. Renslow, 47, joined Colgan Air in September 2005 and had flown 3,379 hours with the airline. Neighbors said he had two children in elementary school.

In a statement, family spokesman Alan Burner said the Renslows "knew he did everything he could to save as many lives as he could in the accident."

President Barack Obama expressed his condolences for the victims and gave praise to the first responders on the scene. "Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones," the president said.

No mayday call came from the pilot before the crash, according to a recording of air traffic control's radio messages. Neither the controller nor the pilot showed concern that anything was out of the ordinary as the airplane was asked to fly at 2,300 feet.

(AP Photo/John Hickey)
A minute later, the controller tried to contact the plane but heard no response. After a pause, he tried to contact the plane again.

Eventually he told an unidentified listener to contact authorities on the ground in the Clarence area.

Erie County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette said it appeared the plane "dove directly on top of the house."

"It was a direct hit," Bissonette said. "It's remarkable that it only took one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighborhood."

The nearly vertical drop of the plane suggests a sudden loss of control, said William Voss, a former official of the Federal Aviation Administration and current president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Voss suggested that icing or a mechanical failure, such as wing flaps deploying asymmetrically or the two engines putting out different thrust, might have caused the crash, he said.

After the crash, at least two pilots were heard on air traffic control messages saying they had been picking up ice on their wings. "We've been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport," one said.

Ice on the wings of a plane can alter aerodynamics and interfere with lift and handling. The danger is well known among pilots.

(Google Maps)
(An undated photo of 6038 Long St., Clarence Center, NY courtesy of Google Maps.)

In general, smaller planes like the Dash 8, which uses a system of pneumatic de-icing boots, are more susceptible to icing problems than larger commuter planes that use a system to warm the wings. The boots, a rubber membrane stretched over the surface, are filled with compressed air to crack any ice that builds up.

Asked about the deicing system on the Q400, Bombardier spokesman John Arnone told CBS News: "The Q400 is fitted with a pneumatic de-ice boots system, the selection of which is required on initial detection of ice. It then remains in the 'on' position until the aircraft is cleared of icing conditions." He added that "a light in the cockpit provides the warning (to the flight crew of icing conditions)."

Arnone stressed that Bombardier is not speculating about whether icing caused the crash.

A similar turboprop jet crash 15 years ago in Indiana was caused by icing, and after that the NTSB issued icing recommendations to more aggressively use the plane's system of pneumatic de-icing boots. But the FAA hasn't adopted it. It remains part of the NTSB's most-wanted safety improvements list.

The Department of Homeland Security said there was no indication of terrorism.

While residents of the neighborhood were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said it sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made odd noises.

David Luce said he and his wife were working on their computers when they heard the plane come in low. "It didn't sound normal," he said. "We heard it for a few seconds, then it stopped, then a couple of seconds later was this tremendous explosion."

(AP GraphicsBank)
Dworak drove to the site, and "all we were seeing was 50- to 100-foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit."

One person in the home was killed, and two others inside, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, escaped with minor injuries.

Karen Wielinski told WBEN-AM in Buffalo that she was watching TV in the family room in the back of the house when she heard a noise.

"Planes do go over our house, but this one just sounded really different, louder, and I thought to myself, 'If that's a plane, it's going to hit something,"' she told the station. "The next thing I knew the ceiling was on me."

She said her husband, Doug, was killed.

The plane was carrying 5,000 pounds of fuel and apparently exploded on impact, Erie County Executive Chris Collins said.

Witness Tony Tatro said he saw the plane flying low and knew it was in trouble.

"It was not spiraling at all. The left wing was a little low," he told WGRZ-TV.

Tatro told The Early Show that he didn't think weather was a major factor. "We drive in it regularly," he said.

It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.

About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the Buffalo airport overnight were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help. New York Gov. David Paterson and other local politicians also met with the relatives, reports CBS News correspondent Steve Kathan.

The 9/11 widow on board was identified as Beverly Eckert. She was heading to Buffalo for a celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday, said Mary Fetchet, a 9/11 family activist.

The crash came less than a month after a US Airways pilot guided his crippled plane to a landing in the Hudson River in New York City, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. Birds had apparently disabled both its engines.

On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people.

Details For Bombadier Q-400 (DH4)
Source: Colgan Air
(CBS/Colgan Air)

  • 74-seat twin turboprop in single-class, four abreast configuration
  • Jet-like speed with state-of-the-art avionics
  • Performance profile allows operations below and away from congested airspace
  • "Q means Quiet" with advanced noise and vibration reduction
  • Full size cabin with 32" seat pitch and 6'5" of headroom
  • Two flight attendants for passenger safety and comfort
  • Continental Airlines short and medium haul in-flight service offerings
  • Arrives and departs at Terminal C at Newark Liberty Airport

    Length 107' 9"
    Height 27' 5"
    Wingspan 93' 3"
    Passengers 68-78
    Engines 2 Pratt & Whitney Canada Corp. PW150
    360 kts (414 mph)

  • Continental said relatives and friends of those on Flight 3407 who want to give or receive information about those on board can call a special family assistance number, 1-800-621-3263.
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