Ask the pilot

The Buffalo crash revisited. Plus: Landing in the water, idolizing Sully and selling books.

Published April 10, 2009 10:33AM (EDT)

A week ago we took a look at the mystery of Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Flight 3407, the Dash-8 Q400 turboprop that went down in February outside Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people. Investigators are stymied by the actions of Flight 3407's captain, who, in response to a warning of an impending stall during final approach in mild icing conditions, pulled back abruptly on the control column, raising the plane's nose and bringing on an irrecoverable loss of control less than 2,000 feet above the ground. Even the dimmest student pilot knows that the proper response to a stall is to lower the nose, not raise it.

That was my second column on the incident, and you may have noticed that I've refrained from using the captain's name in print. It's out there if you choose to look it up, but I see no need to include it here. To some degree, it's a gesture of respect for a fellow colleague. It appears that he screwed up, yes, but there but for the grace of God, good training and luck go the rest of us. There's also the chance that I'm wrong about what happened, and that would make it especially painful to have dragged the poor fellow's name through the mud.

For now, anyway, and much as I hate to say it, the captain set himself up to become a unique sort of villain. He is the anti-Sully.

Only a month before Buffalo, you might recall, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 splash-landed in the Hudson River after a flock of Canada geese took out both engines. I'm sure you remember the story: The captain of that flight, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, did everything exactly right. Blind in one eye, able to move only his left pinkie finger, he deftly guided the engine-less Airbus between the stanchions of the George Washington Bridge, around dangerous ice floes and looming ships, and onward to a picture-perfect water landing. "I was building a house of cards on my tray table," said one passenger. "The touchdown was so smooth that it didn't even wiggle."

After carrying each person to shore on his back, one at a time, Sully clambered up onto the West Side Highway and, dripping with icy water, walked barefoot across Manhattan handing out small bags of pretzels to orphans. Since then he has received the Medal of Honor, balanced the budget, disarmed North Korea and held mass at St. Peter's.

Sorry. The truth is, I have the utmost respect for Sully. But that's just it: respect. It's not adoration or a false, media-fattened misunderstanding of what he and his crew faced that day. Sully was good, but he was also damn lucky. He was lucky that the bird strike happened when and where it did. In darkness or poor visibility, over the ocean, or in a position beyond gliding distance to the calmly flowing river, the result would have been a catastrophe, and no amount of skill would have made a difference.

I was getting a haircut the other day when Nick the barber asked what I did for a living. As is often the case these days, any talk of piloting automatically turns toward the saga of Sully-in-the-Hudson. "Man, that was something," said Nick. "How did the guy ever land that plane on the water like that?"

Nick wasn't looking for a literal answer, but I gave him one anyway. "Pretty much the same way he's landed 12,000 other times in his career," was my response. "Actually, gliding into the river was probably a lot easier than gliding to an airport," I added. "Sully had the benefit of a 12-mile long runway of water and didn't have to worry about crashing short or running out of room."

There was silence after that, which I took to mean that Nick was either silently impressed by this exquisite new knowledge or was thinking, "What a dickhead."

I was exaggerating somewhat, but eager to make a point: That with a few common-sense exceptions, the nuts and bolts of landing on water are pretty much identical to the nuts and bolts of landing on land. Touch down parallel to any swells, as slowly as possible but not so slow as to let a wing drop and risk a cartwheel. The simplicity of the maneuver is one reason pilots don't train for it in simulators. Another reason is that a water landing is presumed to be the byproduct of something extremely serious -- a fire, multiple engine failures or some other catastrophic malfunction. That is the crux of the emergency, not the resultant landing, be it on solid or liquid surface.

And with almost unlimited space, gliding into the Hudson was a much easier task than attempting to hit a fixed point -- that is, a runway -- where the management of speed and descent rate has to be exactly right. With heavy swells, an ocean ditching would be exceptionally dangerous, but I'll take landing in a long, calm river any day over the challenges of making it to a distant runway.

Though it's been done. Few people are familiar with the names Robert Pearson or Robert Piche. Those were the captains of Air Canada Flight 143 and Air Transat Flight 236, respectively, both of whom brought their widebody jetliners to safe landings on a runway after the loss of both engines. The latter flew for 19 minutes without power before reaching a military base in the Azores. (I once participated in a similar deadstick glide in a simulator, described in a column last September.)

I would have to attest that as a group, airline pilots do not live "in awe" of Capt. Sully, as a fawning five-page feature in New York magazine recently put it. On the whole we are grateful, certainly. More than anybody else in recent memory, Sully has reminded people that pilots have an important, occasionally dangerous job that no amount of automation can ever substitute for. And through his celebrity pulpit he has drawn needed attention to the deterioration of working conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of airline workers. But hype is hype, and pilots are sensitive to the fact that many of their fellow colleagues have, in disasters past, performed no less bravely or heroically than Sully did -- more so, to be frank -- but by virtue of lousy luck they didn't survive to make the talk show circuit. Or, because they didn't come splashing down alongside the world's media capital, their stories were never made public. That, if anything, is our gripe.

"Though I guess you can't blame the guy," said a captain to me recently.

Indeed you can't. And to his credit, Sully has handled his time in the public eye with dignity. Call me presumptuous, but I reckon he'd concur with most everything I've typed above -- save for the part about peanuts and orphans.

We'll find out, maybe, in his book. If you haven't heard, Sully just signed a lucrative two-book contract with William Morrow.

If you're thinking that I'm jealous, you're right. I have often thought about writing a book myself, culled from the archives of this column. Surely, with so much public attention focused on the airlines and air travel, my pithy and trenchant insights would produce an easy bestseller.

Except, that's right, I did write a book.

And writing it was the easy part. The stressful part was everything that happened afterward. I remember, for example, arguing with the higher-ups at Barnes & Noble, who insisted on squirreling "Ask the Pilot" away in the dusty corners of the transportation section instead of on the travel shelves. Ditto for Borders. Or pleading in vain with managers in airport bookstores, who in their infinite wisdom refused to order copies of what was -- at least in my mind, call me crazy -- the quintessential airport product. If positioned where fliers might actually see it, I reasoned, it would sell by the bushel. But if you walk into Barnes & Noble today, there you'll find the book, five years old and embarrassingly out-of-date, sandwiched between FAA test manuals and tomes about Victorian steam engines, where the only people who see it -- adolescent hobbyists and pilots -- are those least likely to buy it.

With a six-figure advance and a high-powered public relations team behind him, I can't imagine that Sully will have these problems. Just the same, I hope he knows what he's getting into. The challenges of landing in the water ain't nothing compared to those of selling books.

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OK, I feel better now. And with that out of my system, let's go back to Buffalo for a minute, where we need to take another look at aerodynamic stalls.

(Honestly, I am tired of delving into things like stalls. I don't enjoy writing, or even thinking about, the more textbook aspects of flying. I wish all the columns could be like this one. Or this one. Or even this one. But I need to clarify something, so bear with me.)

As to why in the world the captain did what he did that night, I originally left the question open. Simple panic, perhaps, seemed the likeliest answer. But there is another possible explanation. It may have been that the captain thought he was dealing with a stall of the Q400's horizontal stabilizer rather than a stall of its main wings.

The horizontal stab, sometimes called the "tailplane," refers to the set of smaller wings mounted on a plane's rear fuselage -- or in the case of the Q400, at the top of its vertical fin. These wings help to control the nose-up, nose-down motion known as pitch. As it happens -- for reasons that will put the average Salon reader into heavy REM sleep if I attempt to explain them -- recovery from a tailplane stall involves, among other things, the opposite control column input than does recovery from a "normal" stall. In other words, you pull up. Although there haven't been any Q400 accidents attributable to tail icing, the plane is understood by some to be particularly susceptible to it. Thus, it is quite plausible that the captain was predisposed to the idea that if a stall was going to happen at all during icing conditions, it would be the tailplane first.

The finished draft of last week's column included a segment about exactly this theory. The reason you didn't see it is that, in a last-second decision just before deadline, I chose to leave it out. I wasn't sure of its aerodynamic correctness, and another pilot, let's call him Todd, whom I normally trust for guidance and fact-checking on such issues, questioned it.

"I would definitely take that section out," he warned. "Pulling back on the column will not, by itself, break the stall. Raising the flaps and retarding power are needed also. The reason you pull back isn't to break the stall, it's to keep the nose from continuing forward as the stall progresses aft on the stabilizer; a tailplane stall can, on its own, push the column all the way forward, so you need to pull back, as well as remove flaps, and remove power. In Buffalo the nose actually pitched up farther than it was originally, and the aircraft was already flying too slow. If they were flying at their flap limit speed and had problems upon deployment of flaps, then that would be one thing. But the evidence indicates a true stall, with the pilot acting incorrectly. Additionally, I haven't heard anything about the pilots mentioning yoke buffet, lightening of the controls, or experiencing oscillations, which all could be symptoms of a tailplane stall."

Who said what now?

Todd is right about the nitty-gritty of this -- right enough to scare me out of including the segment -- but he is also wrong, I now feel, in assuming that the crew was familiar with the nuances of such an unusual scenario. Tailplane stalls, exclusive of the more commonly understood wing stall, are extremely rare and impossible to replicate in a training environment. Pilots are not taught recovery techniques for them. The Colgan captain, I fear, was wrongly focused on the possibility of a tailplane stall and did not understand the complexities of dealing with one. His instinct was a mere "pull back." He did, and the rest is history.

I will go out on a limb and state my belief that this is the gist of why Colgan 3407 crashed. It crashed because the captain thought he was dealing with a tailplane stall and thought he was reacting appropriately to it.

To me this holds a lot more credence than the panic theory. For a trained airline pilot to pitch up instead of pitching down is just so egregious and hard to fathom. I was looking for analogies and came up with the idea of a driver hitting the brake instead of the accelerator. But in fact that's a terrible analogy. For a pilot, responding to a stall is much more intuitive, as if using an entirely different part of the brain, than the binary left-right of which pedal to jam with your foot. I believe the captain knew just what he was doing.

And it was wrong. I should also point out that activation of the stall warning system, the so-called stick-shaker, which prompted the captain's action, does not reference the tailplane. It references the angle between the airfoil and the flight path -- the "angle of attack" -- of the wings. Any pilot should know that. There is no independent warning for the horizontal stabilizer, for the simple reason that a stabilizer stall, independent of a wing stall, is so unlikely.

Lastly, if the crew had not been flying too slowly in the first place, the stall warning system would never have activated. What we see, as we usually do in the wake of air disasters, is not a single error but a compound of errors, one of them finally fatal.

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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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