The NTSB held its public hearing this week on Continental flight 3407 that crashed in Buffalo this winter. There has been much speculation about icing, tail stalls, autopilot weirdness, crew coordination, crew qualification, training – pretty much everything has been open for discussion.
The revelations this week noted that the captain had consistently failed flight checks, that the company (Colgan Air) failed to provide adequate training since the captain had not been trained in stall recovery using the stick pusher that is part of the Dash 8’s stall safety system. The pusher apparently activated as the crew allowed airspeed to decay. Colgan responded that the crew had been properly trained. There was speculation that the crew may have been fatigued at the end of a long day. The first officer (FO) had flown in from Seattle the day before after a skiing vacation and had said she wasn’t feeling well.
The FO also was heard on the cockpit voice recorder voicing concern about icing. The captain responded that it wasn’t a problem and he had experience with ice – but it wasn’t in the Q-400.
I’ll offer two observations: A significant portion of this may come down to experience in type. The captain had just over 100 hours in the Q-400. This is something that the Air Safety Foundation sees constantly regardless of the size of aircraft. There is a noticeable drop off in accident involvement after the first 200 hours in make and model. This happens for two reasons – In GA, not that many pilots accumulate high time in any one model so the exposure may be less and the pilot has started to learn how he/she and the machine interact.
There is more mental margin when one knows the aircraft well. You know its limits and strengths and generally have learned to compensate accordingly. That leaves more time for managing other distractions, such as icing. As an aside, being on guard to adverse developments and mentally running contingency plans is the mark of a pro. Amateurs dismiss such things as unimportant or an over-reaction.
Secondly, it seems logical that the first officer might be fatigued since she had acclimated to a different time zone. In the hearing it was brought out that she lived on the west coast and routinely commuted cross country. The captain was reported to have lived in Florida but both crew members flew out of Newark, NJ.
Two thoughts that will likely generate contrarian views and they are cheerfully accepted:
1. Airlines should leave pilots in make and model routinely so that when an FO upgrades to captain he/she already knows the aircraft well – it’s just a seat and mindset change. Some carriers do this and pay is based strictly on seniority, not the size of the hardware. It’s smart from a human factors and cost perspective. There should be some flexibility to allow equipment change but it really shouldn’t be the norm.
2. The time and distance allowed for commuting pilots should be limited. Long duty days become much longer when it’s a 3 -10 hour commute home and you’re subject to all the “variability” of airline schedules. This is one of the sacred cows of airline jobs that gets into pay/lifestyle issues but it collides directly with fatigue and readiness for flight.
These same factors apply to GA flight ops. We need to know the equipment and be ready to fly. Your thoughts?