From Sully…to Sullied
When the wreckage of Colgan/Continental Flight 3407 was still smoldering near Buffalo, I blogged that aircraft icing was a likely potential cause of the crash. Turns out, it was just icing on the cake – a cake that has been in the oven for more than thirty years now.
It was October 24, 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act. There were a lot of good reasons then to remove the tie-downs and chalks on the airline industry. The Civil Aeronautics Board had become egregiously bureaucratic and good people with good business plans were stymied by government rules and inaction.
So why not allow the free market to prevail? Wouldn’t competition be a win-win for the American people and the airlines? Thirty years later, it is hard to find a winner – unless your only metric is your ability to fly roundtrip coast-to-coast for $200.
Well I have news for you: your mother was right…you get what you pay for. And tragically, Flight 3407 is what we ordered up back in 1978.
A “Sully” was not at the controls that dark and misty night. If he were, I would not be writing this now because it would have been just another routine arrival on a cold, misty night at BUF. There was no reason this airplane should have crashed – and yet it makes perfect since when you understand how stressed the system has become.
You will hear all kinds of spin and posterior-covering as the NTSB continues its hearings, but here it is in black and white for you: the flight crew was overworked, overtired, underpaid, undertrained and inexperienced. Period.
Some rules were broken. Before the flight Captain Marvin Renslow slept in the crew room at Newark after commuting from Tampa. First Officer Rebecca Shaw flew through the night from her home in Seattle and was up all day before signing in for her final trip. And the crew did not maintain a “sterile cockpit” (meaning no chit-chat) as they descended below 10,000 feet.
Otherwise, they – and the airline – apparently met the minimum FAA requirements.
But the those minimums still allowed:
- A captain to flunk no less than five flight exams and still hold the “left seat”.
- Those long commutes between a pilot’s home and base.
- The airline to pay pilots paltry wages.
- Only 8 hours of rest time (from wheel-stop to sign-in for next flight).
Reading the transcript of the CVR is a gut-wrenching experience for me. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who lost a loved one that February night.
The crew was shockingly disengaged and unappreciative of the ice that had built up on their craft – and had minimal experience flying safely though it.
Said Shaw: “I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any— I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’dve freaked out. I’dve have like seen this much ice and thought oh my gosh we were going to crash.”
They also never even made mention of their rapidly degrading airspeed once they deployed the landing gear as they began the final stage of the approach.
And then, when the airplane started demanding their attention (in most urgent terms) with an automatic “stick-pusher” designed to remind the pilot to push on the yoke, get the nose down and build up some airspeed or face imminent aerodynamic stall, they overruled it – pulling back hard – sealing the outcome. The 3-D animation is also hard to watch.
But it really wasn’t their fault at all. They were set up to fail by a system that operates on the ratty edge of disaster every day.
This is a systemic problem, people. And it needs to be fixed now. Should the airlines be re-regulated? Well, for one thing, they are already the most regulated “unregulated” industry I can think of. But, no, there has to be a way to keep the free market alive, level the playing field for all competitors, keep barriers to entry low and yet preserve the kind of safety margin that is embodied in the “Sully” generation.