Marvin Renslow's dream of becoming a commercial pilot did not come easy.
For years he had to fit his training around jobs in travel reservations and sales. Even after he got hired by a regional carrier he had to moonlight at a grocery, stocking shelves to make ends meet for his wife and two children.
It's that kind of dedication that makes Renslow's friends cringe to hear that his actions at the controls may be to blame for the plane crash that killed 50 people outside Buffalo, N.Y., this month. They describe him as meticulous, levelheaded and in love with the job it took him until his early 40s to achieve.
“He was always by the book,'' said Jeff Linquist, a former roommate and a pilot with a private license. “There's a lot of guys out there that do fly by the seat of their pants, but he wasn't one of them.''
Renslow, 47, was at the controls of Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo in icing conditions on Feb. 12 when the plane tumbled wildly out of control and plummeted onto a house, where it burst into flames. All 49 people aboard the plane and one man in the house died.
A National Transportation Safety Board member said the pilot appeared to have ignored recommendations from the NTSB and his employer that the autopilot be turned off in icy conditions. Investigators also raised the possibility the pilot overreacted by yanking the yoke back, further destabilizing the plane.
Renslow's employer, Colgan Air, said he was qualified “fully in accordance with all applicable Federal Aviation Regulations.''
To Renslow's former colleagues, the phrase “pilot error'' hardly matches up with the man they knew as a cool and collected manager who studied aviation for more than a decade before finally getting his commercial license.
“It makes me mad,'' said Denise Gambill Harrison, who worked with Renslow at Piedmont Airlines, where he worked in travel reservations. Harrison said she helped Renslow study for his pilot's license and that he once flew her in a small aircraft over North Carolina. “He's a very thought-precise person. He thinks. Sometimes too much, probably.''
Renslow's path to the sky was far different than that of Chesley “Sully'' Sullenberger, the pilot hailed as a hero after ditching his disabled US Airways jet in the Hudson River in New York last month with no loss of life. Sullenberger started flying as a teenager and went on to fly fighter planes, investigate air disasters and work as a safety consultant.
Renslow, who lived in the Tampa suburb of Lutz, worked for years on the margins of the aviation field, booking other people's flights and vying to one day command a plane himself. He took flying lessons, then became a professional pilot after the company he was working at offered a buyout, a close friend said.
“He loved it,'' Linquist said. “He just was always talking about it.''
Becoming a pilot can be expensive and starting salaries for a commuter pilot meager -- less than $20,000 annually for a co-pilot at a regional airline. Renslow stocked shelves and did other jobs at Publix supermarket to help support his family, though the grocery chain said he was not working there at the time of the crash.
The son of a welder, Renslow grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa, a town of about 5,000 in the southwestern part of the state. In high school, he worked part time at the local Hy-Vee supermarket stocking shelves and helping customers with their groceries, and played drums in the school band, friends said.
He was the kind of guy who would help pull your car out of a ditch, and was well-liked among his peers. But his aspirations were larger than small-town Iowa, and he headed to Florida soon after graduation.
After briefly studying hospitality, Renslow went to work for the Howard Johnson hotel chain, then worked in travel reservations for Piedmont Airlines, which later became a subsidiary of US Airways.
The job allowed him to travel to places like Korea and Australia, said Linquist, who lived with Renslow before his friend married. It was also at Piedmont that Renslow met his wife, Sandy.
“From the very beginning, he would always talk about her,'' Linquist said.
Renslow's job eventually took him to Winston-Salem, N.C., where he worked for American Express, handling travel arrangements for R.J. Reynolds. The position sent him around the country about 32 weeks a year, said Dawn Teem, a former colleague. They'd go to NASCAR and other sporting events, making sure clients and VIPs were comfortable.
Teem described Renslow as the go-to person, the one always in control and who never lost his calm demeanor and sense of humor. When roads were icy, he'd put chains on his tires and take her to work.
“I was terrified,'' Teem recalled. “He wasn't.''
Renslow's dream of becoming a pilot was slowly starting to pick up. He took aviation classes from Guilford Technical Community College, earning his degree in 1992, and soon earned his private, instrument, single and multiengine ratings. But he was married and had a young child, so he couldn't afford to become a commercial pilot then.
The budding aviator was enamored with piloting.
“You can't really explain the feeling until you've actually done it,'' Linquist said.
A few years later, Renslow returned to Florida with American Express, still inching toward his dream. From a cubicle, he'd oversee 15 to 20 workers making travel arrangements for corporate clients. On his desk: A few model airplanes.
In 1999, Renslow went to work for Verizon as a sales consultant. Around 2003, he decided to take a company buyout and pursue his dream.
He enrolled at Gulfstream Training Academy in Fort Lauderdale, then got his first flying job with Gulfstream International Airlines Inc. He worked there from August 2004 through April 2005, with an airline lawyer saying there is “nothing notable in his file that stands out.''
For the past 3 1/2 years, Renslow flew for Colgan Air, which operates regional commuter flights for companies including Continental Connections. Linquist said Renslow flew for a while out of Texas and loved the job.
The requirements for a regional pilot are the same as those for flying larger commercial aircraft; both are subject to the same Federal Aviation Administration licensing standards. Many pilots start off in the regional airlines before moving on to major carriers. A regional pilot might start at $40,000 annually, while major carrier pilots earn more than $100,000.
Renslow had 3,379 total hours of flight experience and had 172 hours of formal training on the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft he was flying that night. He also had thousands of hours flying a similar, smaller turboprop plane, which experts say would have prepared him for handling the Dash 8 in icy weather.
Family members gathered at his church in a Tampa suburb Friday for a memorial service.
“My dad did everything he could to save the lives of the people on the plane,'' Kaley Renslow, 12, said at the service. “But it was just his time. Along with everyone else.''