Ask the pilot

Did a stupid, inexplicable mistake cause the crash near Buffalo, N.Y.? Plus: The weird hell of working for a regional airline.

Published April 3, 2009 10:09AM (EDT)

The latest news on February's fatal crash of a regional airline turboprop outside Buffalo, N.Y., is both fascinating and disturbing. Icing, it turns out, was not the central factor in the fate of Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Flight 3407. Investigators are focused instead on what appears to be an egregious case of pilot error. According to a report released on March 25, data from the plane's digital flight recorder reveals that the captain responded incorrectly -- inexplicably, some would say -- to the warning of an incipient stall.

This gets technical, but try to hang with me. (For more on the nitty-gritty of icing and stalls, see my previous columns here and here.) The plane, a Dash-8 Q400 (the actual aircraft involved in the accident, N200WQ, is seen here last October), was on its final approach. For reasons unknown it was flying slightly slower than it should have been. This, together with the effects of at least mild icing, caused activation of the so-called stick shaker -- a warning system that vibrates the pilots' control columns in advance of an aerodynamic stall. This is a bad situation to be in -- shaker activation during flight, for any reason, is serious -- but nothing that can't be remedied.

The basic steps to stall recovery are lowering the nose, leveling the wings, and increasing power. That's Flying 101. Instead, the captain allegedly pulled back on the control column, raising the nose and throwing the airplane into a full aerodynamic stall from which, at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet, recovery was impossible. It fell to the ground, killing all 49 people on board, plus one person on the ground.

That the plane was flying at a slower than optimum speed was clearly a contributing factor, but it was not, by itself, deadly or unacceptable. The captain's reaction to the stall, on the other hand, was a deadly mistake -- and a hard one to fathom.

Had the stick pusher activated, as was earlier speculated, it would make more sense. The pusher is a device that nudges the control column forward -- that is, the nose downward -- if the initial warning (the shaker) is not heeded and a stall becomes imminent. In a transport-category machine like the Q400, stall recovery can take several thousand feet, and the plane is smart enough to take matters into its own hands at such a critical moment. As with the shaker, about the worst thing you can do during pusher activation is pull the control column aft, raising the nose and preventing the plane from replenishing the airflow around the wings. But wrong as that action would be, it's reasonable to imagine it happening if the plane is already close to the ground: The nose falls, the lights of the city suddenly fill the windscreen ... aerodynamics says let the plane descend and accelerate; panic says the opposite.

Apparently, though, it never got that far. The captain reacted immediately, and erroneously, to the initial shaker, pulling back with approximately 25 pounds of force. This is liable to be one of those accidents where the full truth is never deciphered. All we'll know for sure is that he did the wrong thing at the wrong time, for reasons unknown.

Is it possible that experience, or a lack thereof, had something to do with his actions?

Much is being made of the fact that the captain had logged very few hours in the Q400 aircraft -- about a hundred -- and possessed fewer than 3,000 flying hours total. The crash has sparked controversy over the experience levels of regional pilots in general, asserting that they are too young and too inexperienced, and therefore unsafe. Are they?

Well, these are separate issues. Let's talk first about how a pilot can have so few hours in the plane he or she is commanding.

On a Buffalo radio station last week, callers and guests alike were expressing alarm over the idea of captaining a sophisticated plane like the Q400 with a meager hundred hours at the helm. No less perplexing to some, the first officer of Flight 3407 had considerably more Q400 time, with about 700 hours logged. What's going on here?

Nothing is going on here. It's not the least bit uncommon for captains to have fewer hours, either in total or in type, than the first officers sitting next to them. Pilots transition between aircraft types all the time, and when seniority grants an upgrade from first officer to captain, that upgrade is often to a model that the soon-to-be captain has never flown. To the layperson this might sound bizarre, but this is how airline flying works. There is nothing dangerous about it. And after all, you can't gain experience in a particular aircraft spontaneously. It can also be argued that a pilot is never as sharp, or as safe, as when he's fresh out of simulator training on a new aircraft, with all the various procedures and systems knowledge fresh in his mind.

On the other hand, what about experience overall?

When a pilot is hired by an airline, he or she already possesses a considerable amount of flight time. That amount is around 5,000 hours at the major carrier level. At the regional level, however, it can be considerably less. This gets back to a column I wrote in January, highlighting the low pay and poor working conditions found at most regional carriers. In a highly unstable industry, where starting salaries are sometimes under $20,000, it is becoming increasingly difficult for regionals to attract and retain experienced pilots. Over the past several years, pilots have been recruited with as little as 300 total hours. On the face of it, that would seem to pose serious implications for safety, would it not?

The short answer is no. Logbook totals are not always a good indicator of skill or performance under pressure. A given pilot's smarts are not so easily quantified. Not to mention, all pilots undergo rigorous airline training programs before they're allowed to carry passengers.

"Training, absolutely, is the key," says a captain and instructor pilot for ExpressJet, a Continental Express affiliate that is one of the country's largest regionals. Like most of its competitors, ExpressJet has been faced with the challenge of taking very young, low-time pilots and turning them into competent airline pilots. "Really good training is how we did it," he says. "Our whole program had to be reengineered, but we had no choice, and we did it right. It's a longer curriculum now, and an excellent one." He also points out that industry stagnation has, of late, resulted in a rise in the experience levels of most bottom-seniority pilots. "As of right now, our lowest-time first officer has over 2,000 hours in line operations with our company."

The long answer is more complicated and maybe not so rosy. Fact is, there are valuable intangibles that ultra-low-time pilots simply do not possess. It's also true that the efficacy of regional airline training programs can vary considerably.

I spoke to one airline pilot who is also a member of his company's pilot hiring committee. "You can't teach judgment," he says. "Airline training is typically hyper-focused on technical performance and rote skills. Even if a syllabus is modified, there is only so much we can do to sharpen a pilot's instincts and judgment. Experience does that best."

All airline training programs are closely watched by the FAA, but some -- especially those at the largest companies -- are better than others. ExpressJet operates nearly 300 aircraft, with state-of-the-art simulators and a training budget in the tens of millions of dollars. Colgan Air operates about 50 planes, all turboprops, and like many other regionals, it contracts much of its training to third-party facilities and instructors. Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily, and bigger is not always better. But the reality is that airline training is not always as good as it could be.

Also important, if not as much, are the effects of the overall work environment at regional airlines. People would be shocked to learn just how unfriendly many of these companies are to their employees, crew members especially. In addition to the low pay, schedules are often brutally fatiguing, with minimal days off, and pilots (as well as flight attendants) can be subject to all manner of hostile policies.

When I worked at American Eagle in the mid-1990s, earning slightly more than a thousand dollars a month, my scheduled days off were routinely taken away with little or no notice. A friend of mine who flies for US Airways Express says he was recently forced to come to work, under threat of disciplinary action, on the day an immediate family member was hospitalized for a stroke.

I know another pilot who interviewed this winter for a position at GoJet, a subsidiary of Trans States Airlines that flies in United Express colors. In pilot circles, neither Trans States nor GoJet is particularly well respected, and my friend's story is testimony to why. He was flown standby to St. Louis for the interview, paying for his own food and lodging once he got there, as is customary with pilot interviews, including those with the majors. He returned home the next day, the company having promised to let him know, one way or the other, within a week or so. That was three months ago. Did he get the job? He doesn't know, because GoJet didn't bother to inform him. No letter was mailed, and when he finally inquired about his status, he was told to please not call. "They hung up on me, basically. I have no idea if I got the job or not," he says. "I talked to others who were there at the same interview, and they were never told either."

Such treatment, I hate to say, is widespread.

I've saved my favorite example for last. The flier seen here is not from a juvenile detention hall. It's from the Mesa Airlines pilot training center, circa 1995. The company's new-hire pilots were not paid during their multiweek training tenure (that's right, not paid), and were housed in dormitory-style quarters at a facility in Farmington, N.M. This flier, given to me by a former Mesa captain, was taped to the wall in one of those dorms. Granted we are talking more than a decade ago, but I'm told that the overall environment at the airline has improved only slightly. Mesa was, and remains, one of the country's biggest regional players, with several major carrier affiliations.

Pilots, especially at the regional level, are constantly reminded to uphold the tenets of "professionalism" -- a word thrown around with rather intense and gratuitous frequency. This would be easier to take if they were actually treated as professionals in the first place.

Even the most worker-unfriendly, cost-cutting regional is a long way from unsafe, but there is a long-term problem here -- one that will, I feel, require a culture shift: vast changes in the way these companies train, and treat, their pilots.

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Re: When experience means nothing

Seniority, without portability, is a Faustian bargain. When someone can't change employers without severe consequences, the employer has little incentive to improve compensation, or anything else. If an accountant at one firm is offered a better job at another, he'll consider bolting. A pilot has no such leverage -- he's effectively captive.

-- Alan in Brooklyn

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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