NTSB Hearing Probes Buffalo Air Crash

The third and final day of hearings into February's crash of a commuter plane near Buffalo, N.Y., get under way Thursday in Washington, D.C. All 49 people onboard were killed, as was a man inside a house the plane hit. Testimony at the hearing has shown a troubling combination of fatigue, improper conduct in the cockpit and an inexperienced flight crew.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're getting more details this week on the crash in February of a commuter plane near Buffalo. All 49 people on that flight were killed, as was a man whose house was struck by the plane. The flight was operated by Colgan Air. And today is the final day of hearings on the crash, this week in Washington. So far, testimony has shown a combination of fatigue and improper conduct in the cockpit. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The flight crew of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on the night of February 12th was hardly a picture of experience. The pilot, 47-year-old Marvin Renslow, had begun flying the twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Dash just two months earlier. His first mate, Rebecca Shaw, was 24.

Neither made much money at Colgan Air, the commuter airline that operated Continental Connection. Shaw earned just over $16,000 a year and lived with her parents in Seattle - though like Renslow, she was based in Newark.

Shaw hitched rides on flights across the country the night before the crash. Renslow, who lived in Florida, spent most of that night in the crew room at Newark on a couch. That was against company policy, officials testified, because it was unlikely pilots would get a good night's sleep in the lounge. Colgan Air vice president Daniel Morgan testified yesterday that the flight crew's lack of rest before the crash should not be blamed on the airline.

Mr. DANIEL MORGAN (Colgan Air): The issue with this crew was not the fatigue policy of Colgan. The issue with this crew is a crew that did not bring themselves to their appointed place to work after having ample rest time, did not bring themselves in ready to work that day.

NAYLOR: Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board showed quite a few of Colgan's Newark-based flight crews commuted long distances to work. Board member Katherine Higgins noted crew fatigue has been a factor in other crashes.

Ms. KATHERINE HIGGINS (National Transportation Safety Board): When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that there are crew rooms which aren't supposed to be used are being used, I think it's a recipe for an accident. And that's what we have here.

NAYLOR: The NTSB hearings, held at a Washington auditorium, have brought out other issues surrounding the flight crew's performance. Renslow had failed a total of five flight tests, two while at Colgan, and others previously that he apparently never told Colgan about. Colgan vice president Mary Finnigan testified that the airline would not have hired Renslow if it had known of these failed tests. She defended the company's hiring practices.

Ms. MARY FINNIGAN (Colgan Air): My personal standard is I would not sign off on any pilot that I personally would not put my own family in the back of that aircraft. And I felt that we were doing the very best job that we could do.

NAYLOR: That drew grumbling from family members of the crash victims who've been present throughout the hearings. Transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder showed Renslow and Shaw chatted throughout much of the trip, including when the plane was on its descent below 10,000 feet, when cockpit conversations are to be limited to flight procedures - a condition called a sterile cockpit.

Acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker scolded Colgan executives.

Mr. MARK ROSENKER (National Transportation Safety Board): I am concerned about the winking and nodding that I have seen in some of the policies of your company and crew members. And I don't believe it is only within your company or those crew members. I believe there are industry issues here that we must examine at the same time, whether it's violations of sterile cockpit, or cutting the salami too thinly to get to work, and you're not fit to fly.

NAYLOR: The NTSB hearing concludes today. A final report on the crash of flight 3407 is expected early next year.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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