Flight 3407

Richard Binko: Flight 3407 crash documents need for better training

By Richard Binko

Updated: May 07, 2010, 11:48 am /
Published: May 07, 2010, 12:30 am

Buffalo News

Only one good thing can be drawn from the horrific air crash in Clarence last year — a higher bar for pilots everywhere.

The night of Feb. 12, 2009, was foggy and frigid as Continental Connection Flight 3407 approached Buffalo. But it wasn’t the weather that brought down the plane. It was multiple pilot errors. Neither pilot was paying attention to the warning system, and when they panicked at a premature alarm and plunged the twin-engine turboprop into a house below, all 49 on board, and one man on the ground, were killed.

Following an investigation of Flight 3407, operated by regional airline Colgan Air under contract with Continental, the Federal Aviation Administration announced last month that it is considering tougher pilot certification requirements. One proposal would require all new hires to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time; currently, the second-in-command pilot needs only 190 hours. That measure is an essential fix.

If higher certification standards are needed — and they clearly are — then regional airlines like Colgan have a lot of catching up to do. In a race to the bottom, small carriers have slashed pay, leaving their planes to be flown by a pilot corps that is less experienced and more fatigued, and scrambling around the country to report for flight duty at airports far from their homes.

Adopting the proposed higher standards would require higher pay for the second-in-command pilots — which would not only reduce pilot turnover, but would also allow them to live closer to their assigned airports and to stay overnight in hotels rather than catching sleep in airport lounges.

In addition to requiring more flight hours, the FAA must mandate more specialized, hands-on training for pilots on handling hazardous situations and the safety systems designed to prevent them. It’s the regional carriers, on shorter flights at lower altitudes — and especially in areas like Buffalo with unpredictable weather — that most often encounter hazardous flight conditions.

Indeed, the crew of Flight 3407 provided a picture of the regional airlines’ shortcomings. Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, 47, had failed five prior performance tests, two of them while working for Colgan, but kept on flying. First Officer Rebecca Shaw was just 24 and only on the job for a year, during which time she was paid less than $16,000. She complained that night of feeling ill, having taken two flights to Newark from her home near Seattle, and told Renslow that she would have skipped the flight but couldn’t afford a hotel room to get some rest.

Some in the industry say tougher entry- level requirements would deter new pilots and raise expenses for the carriers. That’s like arguing that rigorous medical training and licensing standards discourage would-be doctors and drive up medical costs. It ignores the value—and savings—of safety. In aviation as in medicine, the price to pay for lower standards is life itself.

Richard Binko is a past president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.