Just seconds before the worst U.S. air crash in more than seven years, the pilot exclaimed “Jesus Christ” and moments later his first officer screamed as Flight 3407 plunged to the ground.
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. The board was expected to focus heavily on pilot training and fatigue.
As the Dash-8 approached Buffalo on a wintry night, Shaw and Renslow first remarked to each other - less than seven minutes before the crash - about how much ice had formed on their wings. At the time they were descending from 6,000 to 4,000 feet.
“It's lots of ice,” Shaw 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 I should say,” Renslow replied.
Renslow then remarked that he'd flown about 625 hours in the region before he was hired for this job by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air.
Shaw replied, “I really wouldn't mind going through a 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.’ “
“I would've been fine,” Renslow replied. “I would have survived it. There wasn't, we never had to make decisions that I wouldn't have been able to make but ... now I'm more comfortable.”
The crew then lowers the landing gear and adjusts the flaps, but at 10:16.26 p.m. there's a sound similar to movement of the flap handle and Shaw says, “Uhhh.”
Less than a second later, there are sounds similar to the stick shaker - a warning transmitted through the control stick that the aircraft is nearing a stall. These last for 6.7 seconds. Less than a second later, a horn sounds signaling the autopilot disconnecting and that horn continues until the end of the recording.
Three seconds later, there's a click followed by the sound of increased engine power.
At 10:16.34.8, Renslow says, “Jesus Christ.”
Shaw says she put the flaps up and asks if she should put the landing gear up. Renslow replies: “Gear up, oh (expletive).”
As noise in the cockpit increases, Renslow adds: “We're down.”
There's a thump.
Shaw: “We (sound of scream).”
With that entry at 10:16.52, the transcript ends.
The board also released documents showing that safety investigators were told by one training instructor that Renslow “was slow learning” the 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. Cogan 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. It 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.”
A stick-pusher 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.
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.