The lack of experience, fatigue and low pay of the Buffalo-bound prop jet pilots involved in the worst U.S. plane crash in seven years created a "recipe for an accident," the government said Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board grilled airline officials in all-day testimony about whether Pilot Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw should have been in the cockpit of Continental Connection Flight 3407 at all.
The NTSB hearings into what caused the plane to dive into a house on an icy February night moments before landing will wrap up Thursday.
All 49 on board were killed in the fiery crash, along with a man inside the home.
Day two of the NTSB's three-day public probe into the accident focused primarily on the hiring and employment practices for pilots by Colgan Air, which was operating the doomed flight.
Renslow and Shaw made several fundamental mistakes on their approach into Buffalo that appear to have contributed to the crash, testimony shows.
NTSB member Kitty Higgins said during testimony that the pilots' long commutes, meager pay and fatigue created "a recipe for an accident."
Transcripts of the flight's final moments reveal that Renslow, 47, and Shaw, 24, were chatting about their careers and her lack of experience operating a plane in icy conditions, according to the cockpit voice recorder.
The pair were engaged in the discussion even after they noticed the buildup of ice on the windshield and wings of the Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop.
Click here for the cockpit voice recorder transcript (pdf).
Flight 3407 was approaching Buffalo Niagara International Airport the night of Feb. 12 when the prop jet experienced an aerodynamic stall.
The plane rolled back and forth, then plunged into a house in a fiery crash, killing everyone aboard and one man on the ground.
Federal investigators hammered Colgan Air executives about the pay of their pilots — in Shaw's case, she made between $16,000 and $20,000 a year, according to testimony — as well as whether they were discouraged from getting second jobs and felt pressure by the company not to call in sick.
Airline officials acknowledged at the hearing that Shaw was paid at a rate of about $23 an hour. They did not dispute an NTSB investigator who said she made $16,254 a year, although she could have earned more if she worked extra hours.
Colgan officials said their captains typically have salaries of around $55,000 a year.
Shaw worked for the airline for 13 months and had a second job in a coffee shop when she was first hired, testimony shows. Her pay was so low that she was living with her parents in Seattle and commuting across the country to her Colgan Air job.
Roger Cox, NTSB's aviation safety operations group chairman, suggested while questioning officials for Colgan that Shaw was commuting because she couldn't afford to live in the New York metropolitan area.
Mary Finnegan, Colgan's vice president of administration, said the company permits pilots to live anywhere in the U.S. they wish. She said the company also allows them to remove themselves from flight duty if they are fatigued.
"It is their responsibility to commute in and be fit for duty," Finnegan said.
The pilots' fatigue is believed to have contributed to the Flight 3407 crash.
"Fatigue is a huge factor...While her duty may have started at one time, her commuting time added to that," said Higgins.
Both pilots commuted to Newark, N.J., to make the flight — Renslow from his home near Tampa, Fla., and Shaw from her parents' home near Seattle.
The night before the accident, Shaw flew overnight as a passenger from Seattle to Memphis —where she rested in a crew lounge — before flying to Newark to report to work, according to testimony.
Shaw also complained about congestion and may have been suffering from a cold.
"That looks like a 36-hour clock to me," Higgins said. "It sounds pretty horrible to me."
Fatigue and illness impacts the "professionalism" of crew members, who should come to work "fresh" or they "should not be flying the aircraft," said Colgan Air vice president of flight operations Harry Mitchel during testimony.
"I can't say there's a magic wand for this procedure," Mitchel said, promising Colgan would take appropriate steps to make sure pilots get enough sleep before they report to work. "Fatigue is part of an issue of complacency."
NTSB investigators said 93 of the 137 Colgan pilots who work out of Newark commute by air to work.
Neither pilot had a "crash pad" or apartment they shared with other pilots in the New York area, nor did they rent a hotel room, NTSB documents said.
The company maintains a crew room at the airport with couches, overstuffed chairs and a big screen TV.
Board members said Shaw frequently slept overnight in the crew room in violation of company policy, joking with other crew members that the room had a couch with her name on it.
It is unclear where Renslow, who was in the middle of a two-day assignment, slept the night before the trip, but he logged into a computer from Colgan's crew room in Newark at 3 a.m. the night before, according to NTSB documents.
Colgan officials said overnight sleeping was not allowed in the room because it was a busy place, making quality rest time difficult.
Colgan "looked the other way. I think it's a disgrace, it's despicable," said Pam Weldon, a family friend of a passenger killed in the crash. "They called it 'napping.' They knew it was sleeping."
Daniel Morgan, Colgan's vice president for flight safety, said the airline industry has a long history of flight crews commuting long distances to report for work.
Morgan said it is appropriate that the airline sometimes schedule pilots to be on duty up to 16 hours at a stretch with a maximum of eight hours of flight time.
"It's not an ideal way to work, but neither is working overnight in the post office," Morgan said.
Officials for Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., also acknowledged that Renslow and Shaw weren't paying close attention to the plane's instruments and were surprised by a stall warning.
Nor did they follow the airline's procedures for responding to a stall.
Further testimony and documents also showed that Renslow had failed several training tests before and after being hired by Colgan in 2005. He had been certified to fly the Dash-8 plane for about three months.
Paul Pryor, Colgan's head of pilot training, acknowledged that Renslow didn't have any hands-on training on the Dash 8's stick pusher — a key safety system that automatically kicks on in response to a stall — although he had received hands-on stick pusher training on a smaller plane that he previously flew.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.