3407 in Buffalo: FAA Better Pray It's Not Icing
In covering the Continental Connection Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, we skimmed dozens of web sites to see who was reporting what. Typically, these sweeps reveal reporting of various detail and quality, some of which is painful to read. I clipped this clinker from an AP report: "If a midair de-icing system is not working, guidelines from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Foundation say that pilots can take a number of steps, including changing speed, pulling the nose up or down, or trying a 180-degree turn to rid the plane of ice."
That's the sort of sentence that's in the right hemisphere, but about 60 degrees off course. Not that I'm bashing my colleagues in the work-a-day press. You try reporting on a subject you know nothing about and writing to a 10-minute deadline. I'm quite certain I've made similar misinterpretations when I've reported on subjects outside my expertise, which all journalists must occasionally do.
But another comment from one of the leading lights in the industry, ABC's aviation expert, John Nance, caught my eye. ABC's site quoted him as saying he would be surprised if icing caused the crash. Icing, said Nance, "is usually something that this type of aircraft can handle very well…and it's a brand new aircraft."
It's too soon to say if icing was the probable cause of this crash, but Nance's comment struck me as myopic and rooted in the not entirely unreasonable notion that FAR Part 25 certificated aircraft are capable of flying in known icing conditions. After all, they do it every day, day in and day out. Except when they don't.
Before the Roselawn ATR crash in 1994 and the Detroit Comair/Delta Connection crash in 1997—-an Embraer EMB-120RT--I would have shared Nance's view that this type of aircraft can handle icing. And by "type," I'm thinking more of market type: pneumatic-boot equipped turboprops. Because of the routes they fly and the markets they serve, these airplanes spend a lot of time slogging around in bad weather. On a scuzzy, icy northeastern winter day, a crew might see three or four approaches to minimums before lunch. If there's the kind of large droplet icing out there that brought down the Roselawn ATR, they're likely to find it.
The NTSB revealed on Friday that Flight 3407—a Dash 8 Q400—experienced wild pitch and roll excursions immediately after the flaps were extended. This sort of departure at a configuration change is strongly suggestive of wing or tailplane icing, which, according to the CVR, the crew had discussed. However, reports seem to indicate a pitch up after autopilot disengagement, which isn't consistent with a tail stall. Further, the wreckage was contained in a small area and the aircraft appears to have impacted in a flat attitude 180 degrees off its inbound course for the ILS 23 at Buffalo. That's another fingerprint of a stall mush or spin and a further suspicion of icing-induced stall issues. Reports over the weekend indicated that the FDR showed stick shaker activation, so I'm sure the NTSB will look at a garden variety stall not related to icing. CG could be an issue, too.
Nothing of substance is known now, of course, but I think of lot of people in the industry are starting to place their bets. If it turns out to be icing, the FAA will have hell to pay. For years and following the Detroit crash, the NTSB has faulted the agency for not doing more to improve ice protection requirements and crew training, such as disseminating approach speed and configuration charts for approaches in known icing conditions. If icing is implicated here, I predict the NTSB will announce a preliminary conclusion sooner rather than later. And it will ratchet up the pressure on the FAA to respond, as well it should.
Meanwhile, I'll part company with John Nance. I'll be surprised if this crash doesn't have icing all over it. And by the way, for any regional pilots reading this blog, let us know if your training included a review of the Detroit Comair accident.