Most of us know the fairy tale told of a goose that laid golden eggs. While the goose lived, prosperity reigned and everybody was fat, dumb and happy. But when the goose was cooked, those accustomed to not worrying about things suddenly were thrown into turmoil.
It was the birth of finger pointing to affix blame.
Last week the transcript of the cockpit recordings from doomed "Continental Connection" flight 3407 was made public. Operated by regional carrier Colgan Air, the commercial flight crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., Feb. 12, 2008, killing 50 people. Last week’s National Transportation Safety Board public hearings looked at issues of pilot fatigue, pilot error, pilot inexperience and pilot health.
If you missed it, Continental flight 3407 crashed into a neighborhood just short of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The plane was a fairly new Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, equipped with a de-icing system, autopilot and the latest computer systems comprising "the glass cockpit."
Two other flights approaching Buffalo had reported icing conditions. The Colgan crew noted a significant buildup of ice on the leading edge of the wing and the windshield. Cleared for landing in Buffalo, as the crew set flaps, things deteriorated quickly. A "stick shaker" warning occurred signaling an imminent stall situation, and the autopilot pushed the control stick forward to gain airspeed by getting the ship’s nose down. The captain attempted to pull the nose up and reset the flaps, but just 26 seconds from the onset of the difficulty the ship oscillated wildly and plunged into a residence at 6038 Long Street, killing all 49 aboard the aircraft and one child in the house.
In their desperate struggle to save the plane, the crew didn’t even have time to make a distress call.
Missing from last week’s expert reports was that Captain Marvin Renslow, 47, had 261 hours in the Q400, and total flight time of nearly 3,400 hours. He was not an inexperienced pilot. Though he had flown "the Q" as Captain for only 109 hours — and admittedly things are different in the left seat than in the right — the man was not a beginner.
Reports also dwelt on First Officer Rebecca Shaw’s being only 24 years old and having a head cold. Missing was that she had 772 hours in the right seat of the Q400, and accumulated 2,200 total hours in the air. She was not an inexperienced beginner, either.
Working airline operations at the world’s busiest airport for most of the last decade, and monitoring multiple radio frequencies, I heard the Feds ask a pilot from my Atlanta-based regional carrier to repeat directions correctly — called a "talk back" — just once in all those years. That’s phenomenal. The Feds often talk pilots unfamiliar with Atlanta all the way off the runway to the assigned ramp. To hear only one incorrectly repeated "talk back" from any carrier over 10 years is a testimony to the professionalism in the cockpit as well as to the proficiency of the company’s training department.
I’ve read the transcript from Colgan Air 3407. It’s pretty clear that the pilot’s effort to pull the nose up and reset the flaps put the plane in the ground. I understand that. What we don’t know — and will never know — is why he did it.
Regardless, here’s the real crux of the story.
The system which provides pilots to fly the traveling public was devised decades ago. The major airlines were regulated, their air and ground crews were well paid and had superlative benefits, and executives were rewarded by their boards of directors as stock values soared.
The airline industry — back then — constituted the goose laying golden eggs.
That all changed in the early 1980s when the majors began using regional carriers to bring customers to the big hub airports. Regional air crews worked for far less than the big boys, but with the promise of one day landing a plum job with a major. The scenario was similar to minor league baseball players moving to the big leagues.
But Federal deregulation of the airline industry in the early 1980s killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. Corporate executives kept receiving unbelievable bonus payments, even as their carriers nose-dived into receivership. In less time than it takes to tell about it, the glory days of the airline industry were gone with the wind.
Today regional carriers employ pilots entrusted with fully 50 percent of America’s domestic airline travel. Yet the pilots — the overwhelming majority of which are proficient, professional, highly trained and motivated individuals — are compensated at ridiculously low wages, necessitating second jobs for most and long, red-eye commutes for many.
Though the goose is has been cooked, the outdated system devised to provide pilots still thrashes about, like a snake with its head cut off.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the NTSB will blame the crew for the "Continental Connection" Colgan Air 3407 tragedy.
But in my mind, the system killed those people. And the system will kill more unless and until it’s scrapped and replaced with a realistic one which appreciates the professionalism and proficiency of regional airline crews, and pays them a living wage.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His columns regularly appear in Sunday’s paper.