Job Safety

May 14, 2009

Tragedy in Buffalo

From the voice recordings of cockpit conversations we can begin to understand the circumstances surrounding the tragic end of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY on Feb 12, 2009. The pilots apparently neglected to monitor their falling airspeed. Ice was evident on the windshield. Then there was a stall warning. Captain Renslow may have misinterpred the situation and pulled back on the stick instead of pushing it forward which would have allowed the plane to regain speed. The resulting stall was fatal to the crew and fifty people. The slow and incorrect response to the stall warning makes little sense to experienced pilots trying to understand this event.

The investigation is still pending, but I am going to suggest that the error made here was a consequence of a chain of errors leading up to the flight. Both the pilot and the co-pilot were probably very tired. The co-pilot had been skiing the day before and had taken the red-eye flight from Seattle. At the start of her shift on the evening of Feb 12 she had possibly been awake for 36 hours. The pilot had been using the Continental computer system before dawn so he may have been tired as well. An incorrect response to a sudden alarm is typical of a fatigued individual. The distracting cockpit banter during landing is also typical of two tired people trying to stay awake and alert.

I reluctantly fault the pilots in this case. But the poor judgement may be more on Continental management for not monitoring the shifts and circadian rhythms of their crews. There are plenty of simple steps that could have been taken to insure the pilots were well rested including, of course, testing them when they came on shift. BLT has the technology to do that. The crash occurred 59 minutes after takeoff.