Published February 17, 2009
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The air traffic controller's words were pointed but steady as Flight 3407 burned on the ground near Buffalo .
"Either state police or sheriff's department. You need to find out if anything is on the ground. This aircraft was five miles out and all of a sudden we have no response from that aircraft."
The recordings show there was no mayday call. They capture other nearby pilots discussing ice on their wings.
They are telling and, in hindsight, touching, and were posted to http://www.LiveATC.net, a Web site that is changing the pace of aviation news.
Because they were captured by a network of amateur radio and aviation enthusiasts, they aired far sooner than any federal agency would typically release a recording or transcript related to last week's crash that killed 49 people aboard the plane and one in the home the plane hit.
10:29:18 — Tower. Cactus 1452 is coming up on the Klump. And, uh, we saw the ground. You guys know what's going on?
10:29:24 — Cactus 1452...Yes sir, we are aware.
That exchange between the Buffalo tower and a plane nearing the airport radio beacon known as "Klump" was captured just after the crash, and was quickly posted to the LiveATC site. The Web site is the creation of Dave Pascoe, a Boston-area Internet site executive, radio enthusiast and pilot who's melded his hobbies into a worldwide network that allows visitors to listen in on pilot-tower transmissions live or after-the-fact.
Volunteers who live near airports hook police scanners to the Internet through a network that allows them to feed only air traffic channels.
"I put it up and all of the sudden this outpouring of people" began volunteering to add airports near them, said Pascoe, whose day job is vice president of operations for the talent discovery site www.ourstage.com. "It kept growing by leaps and bounds."
After nearly six years in operation, the site now monitors air traffic at between 230 and 250 airports in the United States, Japan, South Africa, Europe and Australia.
10:17:25 — Colgan 3407. Approach.
10:17:33 — Delta 1998 look out your right side about five miles for a Dash-8. It should be about 2,300 (feet). Do you see anything there?
10:17:41 — Negative. Delta 1998. ...
It was volunteer Dan Salmons whose equipment captured the Buffalo feed. Although he listens often, he was not tuned in when the Continental flight crashed onto a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
"Once in a while you hear an emergency but I never thought that I would hear something like that," said Salmons, a ham radio operator and parts manager at a Buffalo-area auto dealer.
Pascoe has organized the computers that support his site to group the flood of incoming recordings in 30-minute blocs. After hearing about the 10:20 p.m. into the home in Clarence, outside Buffalo, he went back to the 10 p.m. segment and chained together audio from different receivers, editing out dead space. It was on the air within hours.
"It was pretty chilling for me," said Pascoe, who as a pilot has flown in the area where the plane went down.
Although his site sees a spike in traffic when there are disasters, it's more common use is as a training tool for pilots and air traffic controllers, who use the recordings to critique themselves or to get a feel for communications at unfamiliar airports.
The Federal Aviation Administration refers to the site in some training sessions, Pascoe said.
No one has ever asked him to take the site or any recordings down.
"Anybody can be picking up these transmissions so it's not something that is top secret," he said. "It's just a natural evolution of living in an information society."
The cause of the Flight 3407 accident remains under investigation, with icing emerging as an early suspect.
"We're proceeding as normal," said Terry Williams, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman. "It's not unusual for the FAA to release the discussion between the tower and pilots ... That happens in most accident investigations."
The listener- and advertising-supported LiveATC site can be heard using programs like iTunes, Winamp or Windows Media Player, or mobile devices like iPhones, BlackBerries and Treos, Pascoe said.
The most recent accident it captured before the Continental flight was the fatal crash of a small plane operated by a volunteer group that was carrying a cancer patient to Boston in August.