Lawyer: Colgan Air doubted crash pilot's ability

Scene of deadly Feb 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, N.Y.
File,AP Photo/David Duprey

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A lawyer for families suing over the deadly 2009 crash of a plane into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., says newly-released emails show the flight's operator, Colgan Air, doubted its pilot's ability to fly the plane six months before it crashed.

Despite misgivings, Capt. Marvin Renslow was allowed to fly the Q400 plane one month after Colgan managers exchanged emails showing he failed to make a list of pilots to be promoted from a smaller Saab plane, attorney Hugh Russ III said Friday.

All 49 people on board the Newark, N.J.-to-Buffalo flight and a man on the ground died when it went into an aerodynamic stall and crashed into a house in a residential neighborhood in Clarence on Feb. 12, 2009.

The emails are part of wrongful death lawsuits filed by passengers' families claiming the plane's pilots were improperly trained and made errors. The cases are pending in U.S. District Court in Buffalo.

Colgan parent Pinnacle Airlines said it submitted the August 2008 emails as part of the court cases three months ago but lifted the confidential designation Friday at the families' request.

"You are correct. (Renslow) had a problem upgrading," Colgan chief pilot Bill Honan wrote to Colgan officials in one email.

"He is already off the list," Honan wrote in another, referring to pilots targeted for promotion to the Q400.

But about a month later Colgan did promote Renslow to fly Q400s, Russ said.

Russ, who represents several victims' families, said the emails show Colgan put profits ahead of safety by choosing to promote Renslow to a larger, more complex plane even though they knew he wasn't ready.

At the time, Colgan was growing rapidly and had expanded its fleet to include new Q400s, a turboprop airliner that seats about 50 people. The smaller Saab 340 typically seats 30 to 36 people.

Jennifer West, whose husband, Ernie, died in the crash two miles from their Clarence home, said the emails prove what the families have said all along, that Renslow shouldn't have been flying the plane.

"It's in black and white print that he is not qualified to be upgraded to fly the Q400," she said. "They said he was off the list. What I want to now is who put him back on the list. If you're not qualified, you're not qualified."

In the emails, Colgan officials recognize that Renslow "doesn't have the minimum time (flight hours) for this, that he is not qualified by virtue of his training problems and failures. They explicitly decide not to promote him because he's not qualified, and then a month later, for whatever reason, they promoted him anyway," Russ said.

In a statement, Pinnacle said Colgan's chief pilot required Renslow to pass an additional proficiency check before being allowed to begin transitioning from the Saab 340 turboprop to the Q400. He then passed Colgan's Federal Aviation Administration-approved Q400 training program and 20 hours of transition experience without any problems, the airline said.

"Captain Renslow was properly trained, certified and qualified under all applicable federal aviation regulations to act as pilot-in-command of a Q400 aircraft," the statement said.

Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the emails weren't provided to the board during its yearlong investigation of the crash.

The investigation found that an "inappropriate response" by the captain to a key piece of safety equipment caused the crash. The board also said the flight crew's inattention to airspeeds, their violation of regulations prohibiting unnecessary conversation during takeoffs and landings, and the air carrier's inadequate procedures for entering airspeeds for freezing weather were contributing factors.

Lawsuits that do not settle are expected to go to trial in March.

At a status conference earlier this month, another attorney, James Kreindler, had referred to the then-classified emails as "a turning point" in the case.

John Cox, an aviation safety consultant and former airline pilot, said any pilot, including Renslow, who met the qualifications to fly the Saab 340 was also technically qualified to fly the Q400. The same number of hours of flight experience and an airline transport license are required for both.

But Cox said he was surprised NTSB wasn't given the emails.

"It's something I know the NTSB would be interested in," Cox said.

West said she was glad the emails were made public, especially after the last court session when Colgan lawyers had argued to keep them confidential, at one point asking the judge to clear the courtroom, which included reporters. The judge refused.

"They called the emails the smoking gun, to me that (the request) was the bullet in the gun," West said.

"This is something that should have been brought to light in the NTSB investigation two years ago," said Kevin Kuwik, a college basketball coach whose girlfriend, Lorin Mauer, was killed in the crash.

"I don't know about from a legal standpoint, but it's clearly very relevant from a safety standpoint," said Kuwik, who is not part of any lawsuit against Pinnacle. "This is a shining example once again that this was a very avoidable and preventable accident."