Pilot Action May Have Led to Buffalo Crash

February 18, 2009
Abram I. Bohrer

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Investigators examining last week’s Continental Connection plane crash have gathered evidence that pilot commands — not a buildup of ice on the wings and tail — likely initiated the fatal dive of the twin-engine Bombardier Q400 into a neighborhood six miles short of the Buffalo, N.Y., airport, according to people familiar with the situation.

The commuter plane slowed to an unsafe speed as it approached the airport, causing an automatic stall warning, these people said. The pilot pulled back sharply on the plane’s controls and added power instead of following the proper procedure of pushing forward to lower the plane’s nose to regain speed, they said. He held the controls there, locking the airplane into a deadly stall, they added.

The crash on Feb. 12 at about 10:20 p.m. EST killed all 49 aboard and one person on the ground.

The investigation is still at an early stage, and National Transportation Safety Board officials have warned about ruling out potential causes or prematurely jumping to conclusions. But in the past few days, government and industry crash experts have gained a better understanding of the sequence of events as they have compared information from the plane’s flight recorders with radar and weather data.

Mark Rosenker, the NTSB’s acting chairman, said Tuesday that investigators still have “lots of data that needs to be examined,” and “still more evidence that needs to be collected,” before announcing firm conclusions.

The Q400 was operated by Colgan Air Inc., an unit of Pinnacle Airlines Inc., which was operating the flight on behalf of Continental Airlines Inc. Joe Williams, a spokesman for Pinnacle, declined to comment about details of the accident while the safety board was investigating. A spokeswoman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents the pilots, declined to comment.