Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Colgan 3407

I was listening to the news on iTunes at work today when the followup story on the Feb. 12th crash of Continental Connections played.  The cause that they are investigating is one I fought so hard against back in February.  Pilot error.

Here is the article in the Wall Street Journal.

That crash hit very close to home.  Continental is my old company. The old guy of whom I no longer speak flew for Continental Express. I still have many friends and connections that fly Continental Express for one regional carrier or another and are based out of Newark.  It's a really small family, all in all.  

I've had so many dreams over the years of working a flight as it crashed.  Nightmares, usually. In the same way that I would dream over and over again that I was on the 1ooth floor of the World Trade Center and had to jump, I feel the emotions so clearly.  Even all these years out of the industry, I still have these dreams regularly.  And so, having flown so many times, I can so clearly imagine how those flight attendants felt on their jumpseats; trying to look calm for the passengers that were looking to them for some comprehension of the situation. But they knew what was happening.  They knew how close they were on their descent and they knew when the plane started to buck and roll wildly that they were going to die.  It breaks my heart to think of what everyone on that flight went through.

At the time of the crash, it looked like icing was the leading factor.  From the looks of how the captain handled the situation, he may have thought it was tail icing, which makes sense based on the reported conditions in the area.  The big trick from God on aerodynamics is that with wing icing you do what the plane is designed for, push the stick forward and increase thrust (step on the gas).  With tail icing, you pull back on the stick to decrease speed.  But it is really hard to know which condition you are presented with.  Every model handles differently, each plane indicates stalls differently.  

But now, the death of all of those people are being blamed on this one man.  That makes me so sad for his family.  For those fliers reading this, you're probably thinking, "hell yeah, we blame him!  It was his responsibility to fly the plane!".   I think we all take for granted what that entails. We get on a plane and expect that it's routine for these people.  And it gets that way.  Flight crews get so used to day in/day out regular conditions that we can be complacent when something finally happens.  The idea is to train us so systematically that the procedures are emblazoned in our minds so that it is completely natural to follow those procedures.  I'm speaking from experience in the cabin.  When I had a passenger down with a heart attack I did, robotically even, what I had been trained to do.  

However, I have also been in the cockpit.  I have flown a plane.  I honestly couldn't handle the pressure of the fact that my mistake, in an instant, could cause my or anyone's death.  There is SO MUCH going on in that cockpit.  There are SO MANY things to consider when making any split-second decision.  Hearing Capt. Sully retell the story of the Hudson River landing gives you an indication of that.  His calm, calculated handling saved hundreds.  But he had been flying for more than 20 years.

The fact is, this pilot wasn't trained extensively enough.  You can bet that there will be new FAA requirements due to this accident.  But we have to remember, the people flying those regional jets are there for a reason...you have to start somewhere.  They are usually just building flight hours so that they can get to the majors.  The hours they acquired (which are pretty minimal) in order to get hired on were likely as flight instructors on completely different equipment than what they are now flying.  Flying for the regionals is like continued training.  Perhaps this is a new concept to the press, but it is understood in the industry.  If you took pilots with little experience out of the cockpits of regional carriers, there would be no one left to fly.  When they get the hours that the public would expect from them to qualify as experienced, they jump ship and go to the bigger airlines because that is the whole point.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great pilots out there in the regionals.  There are those that handle pressure better than others.  Perhaps this captain wasn't one of them.  I just hate to see the press pick apart things like "idle chatter" below 10,000 ft. and how that is not allowed by the FAA.  They point to the fact that the co-pilot was congested as if that would in any way contribute to the situation. When you are congested and fly your ears don't pressurize normally and it can cause severe pain and bursting eardrums...but she never said a word about pain once she was inflight, so why even bring that up?  She did nothing wrong, yet they are trying to cast doubt on her ability to fly that day.

Yes, I know I am rambling.  No, I don't guess I really have a point.  I guess, with the airline industry being so close, it feels like they are picking on family.  Family that is no longer here to defend themselves.  I guess the greatest loss is that no one in that plane stood a chance.  That finality absolutely breaks my heart. 

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