Focus of Buffalo Plane Crash Probe Turns to Pilot Training

Federal investigators are examining cockpit training at Colgan Air Inc. in light of evidence suggesting that pilot commands likely sent one of its commuter airplanes into a dive that killed 50 people last week near Buffalo, N.Y., according to government and industry officials.

The twin-engine Bombardier Q400 went out of control and bucked violently around 10:20 p.m. EST on Feb. 12, when it was a few miles out and descending toward the Buffalo airport. Within a few seconds, it entered a fatal dive. The turboprop plane was operated by Colgan, a unit of Pinnacle Airlines Inc., as a commuter flight for Continental Airlines Inc.

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Government investigators think the turboprop slowed to an unsafe speed and lost lift during the final minute as it approached the airport, according to people familiar with the probe. Onboard stall-warning systems alerted the pilots and automatically activated the "stick pusher," which pushes the control column forward to angle the nose of the plane down in order to regain speed, these people said.

At that point, the captain pulled back sharply on the controls and added power, instead of following the proper procedure of pushing forward to lower the nose to get out of a typical stall, these people said. Investigators also haven't ruled out icing as a contributing factor in the accident.

As crash experts dig deeper into the dive of Continental Connection Flight 3407, they are partly focusing on the training Colgan pilots receive about how to recover from a stall, these people said. Last week's crash is the second time in five years that a fatal accident has prompted federal air-safety experts to question the effectiveness of training programs — and specifically maneuvers to escape from a stall — at Pinnacle or one of its units.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is heading the probe, confirmed Wednesday that investigators are examining whether the cockpit crew overreacted. He also confirmed that pilot commands may have initiated the fatal dive.

The safety board, among other issues, is looking into why Colgan's training programs apparently stop short of allowing pilots in simulators to feel the stick-pusher activate, according to people familiar with the issue. The device is intended to automatically prevent the plane from going into a stall by pointing the nose down to regain speed. Safety experts worry that unless pilots understand and feel what happens when the stick-pusher goes into action in a simulator, they may not react properly when it activates during an in-flight emergency.

In a statement, Colgan said its training programs "meet or exceed the regulatory requirements for all major airlines," adding that in the wake of the Buffalo crash, it has "specifically re-examined our procedures for this aircraft."

Click here to read the full story from the Wall Street Journal.

Click here to read about prior trouble with the type of plane involved in the crash.