The February crash of a Continental Connection commuter plane near Buffalo, which killed 50 people, has raised two significant safety issues. The National Transportation Safety Board started hearings on May 12th on the crash and some interesting information was revealed. As a result, two safety gaps have become clear:
• A 1996 federal law intended to ensure that an airline hiring a new pilot would know about the pilot’s previous problems failed to do the job; and
• the captain of the flight that crashed near Buffalo had never received hands-on training with a safety system that activated just before the plane crashed.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Captain Marvin Renslow had failed five “check rides,” or hands-on tests, conducted in a cockpit or a simulator, before the crash. Colgan Air, which operated the flight for Continental, says that two of those tests had been conducted after the captain began working there in September 2005. Colgan Air said it had known about one previous failure at the time, but that Captain Renslow had not told the company about the two others.
It was reported that airlines have historically had trouble ascertaining the performance histories of their pilots. A law passed by Congress requires airlines to get the performance records of job candidates, waiving some privacy laws to make the information transfer possible and it would appear that Colgan Air should have been more diligent. But the law apparently did not cover the three tests Captain Renslow had failed before he was hired, because Colgan was in general aviation, meaning non-airline passenger flying.
The other “hole in the safety net” involves the actual pilot training. The Continental Connection flight crashed shortly after the activation of a safety system intended to prevent a condition called “aerodynamic stall,” in which the wings lose lift because the plane is flying too slowly or at too great an angle to the oncoming wind. The system consists of a “stick shaker,” a tactile warning that shakes the control column pilots use to adjust the plane’s nose-up or nose-down attitude, and a “stick pusher,” which forces the nose down if the pilot fails to do so.
It was reported that the plane crashed after one of the two pilots jerked the stick back, forcing the nose too high, in what may have been an inappropriate reaction to the activation of the anti-stall system. Colgan Air reportedly trains its pilots in a flight simulator. In a flight simulator, it’s not demonstrated how the safety system works. The FAA does not require it to do so. It was said by Colgan Air that “a stick pusher demonstration in an aircraft simulator is not required by the FAA and was not part of the training syllabus.” Both of the safety problems mentioned above should be remedied by the FAA. Certainly, the past history of pilots and their training, once hired to fly commercial planes, are critically important from a safety perspective.
Source: New York Times
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