A cockpit voice recorder transcript released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board shows that only minutes before the Feb. 12 crash on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw chatted about her career and shared their fear of flying in icy weather.
Moments later the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop, experienced an aerodynamic stall and plunged into a house, killing all 49 people aboard and one man on the ground.
The transcript was released as the safety board opened a three-day public hearing Tuesday into the accident.
CBS News Correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that investigators are looking specifically at the quality of the training that Renslow had, and whether - with better training - the crash might have been prevented.
They will examine what has been the central mystery of the accident: Why did the captain yank up on the control column after receiving warning of an imminent stall, when pilots are trained to do just the opposite?
The Transcript's Chilling Details
The transcript initially reads at what must have seemed a very ordinary flight. The pilots banter about work, flight controllers, past experiences of having to pull a plane out of service because of a chip defect.
Shaw talks of an interest in working for a small cargo carrier: I'd do that three nights a week and be home. I could have kids and raise a family. And I think that that might be more worth my while, something like that. … I'm so in limbo right now it's actually kind of kind of interesting, like I don't know where I'll be in a year."
The transcripts reveal two pilots who were deeply engaged in shop talk even as they came in for a landing, Cordes reports.
Renslow remarked that he'd flown about 625 hours in the region before he was hired for this job by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air.
"As a matter of fact I got hired with about 625 (flight) hours," the 47-year-old captain volunteered.
"Oh wow. That's not much for uh back when you got hired," replied his 24-year-old first officer, Shaw.
The conversation violated a basic flight rule: no non-essential chatter below 10,000 feet.
"Keep your head in the game. You always need to have your head in the game," Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, told Cordes.
That's especially true when flight conditions are poor, as they were that February night.
"Oh yeah oh it's lots of ice, " the first officer noticed looking out the window.
The captain said, "Oh yeah that's the most I've seen - most ice I've seen on the leading edges in a long time. In a while anyway."
NTSB sources say the bantering pilots failed to notice the ice-glazed plane was losing airspeed, making it vulnerable to a stall.
Shaw replied, "I really wouldn't mind going through a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain. ... I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced. I've never seen any. I've never experienced any of that. I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I'dve freaked out. I'dve have like seen this much ice and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.'"
Five minutes later, they did crash when, responding to an urgent stall warning, they yanked back on the controls. Pilots are trained to push down to pick up speed.
"Obviously the initial reaction to the stall warning was incorrect. That set the course of action for what followed," said Wally Warner of Bombardier, the airplane's manufacturer.
The captain - perhaps realizing the mistake - said "Jesus Christ." The first officer said she put the flaps up and asked if she should put the landing gear up too.
The captain: "Gear up." He swore, and said, "We're down."
The first officer screamed. It was over in seconds.
Fifty people were killed and fatigue may have played a role, Cordes reports. The first officer had a cold and had flown in on a redeye the night before the crash while the captain had spent the night in the crew room - a violation of company policy.
"All The Training And Experience Required" By FAA
Colgan Air acknowledged Monday that Renslow's training for the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier didn't include a demonstration or simulation of the stick-pusher system, which automatically kicks in when a plane is about to stall, pointing the aircraft's nose down into a dive so it can pick up enough speed to allow the pilot to guide it to a recovery.
Colgan noted that the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require a simulator demonstration of the stick-pusher and added that Renslow "had all the training and experience required to safely operate the Q400."
However, when Flight 3407's stick-pusher kicked in on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Renslow pulled back on the plane's control column, apparently trying to bring the aircraft out of the sudden dive by raising the nose up. Pushing forward to gain speed is the proper procedure.
The activation of a stick pusher can be a jarring experience for any pilot, especially if the pilot has never experienced it before, said William Waldock, an aviation science professor at Embry-Riddle University in Prescott, Ariz. The natural response is to pull back unless you've been trained through repetition to push forward, he said.
Flight 3407 experienced an aerodynamic stall after the control column was pulled back. The plane then rolled over and dropped from the sky, landing on a house about five miles from the airport.
The NTSB recommended two years ago that the FAA study whether pilot training on stick-pushers should be improved. It appears the agency didn't change its guidance on stick-pusher training when it revised its training manual last fall on how to recover from a stall, sources said. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency places its emphasis on teaching pilots on how to avoid getting into a situation where a stall occurs, rather than how to recover from one.
The board released documents showing that safety investigators were told by one training instructor that Renslowthe Dash 8 at the start but his abilities "picked up at the end."
The training instructor said Renslow struggled to learn the Dash 8's flight management system, a critical computer, and had difficulty learning switch positions which were opposite from the throws he had been used to on another aircraft. This instructor described the captain's decision-making abilities as very good.
A check airman who flew with the captain in December said he flew very well and had good skills, and while he was still learning the flight management system, it was a normal progression.
Colgan Air confirms the 47-year-old captain had failed test flights called "check rides" five times - twice during his tenure at the airline, and three times before he was hired.
But Cordes reports that Colgan claims its pilot training regimen was examined and approved by the FAA.
"Captain Renslow had all the training and experience required to safely operate the Q400," the airline said in a statement. "All Colgan Air flight crew training programs are certified in advance by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and exceed requirements set forth by applicable regulations."
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