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Federal hearings into fatal Buffalo, N.Y., crash to focus on pilot's error

Marvin Renslow, his wife, Sandy, and their children Kaley and Tyler, of Lutz. Renslow died Feb. 12, when the Continental commuter plane he was piloting crashed near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo courtesy of the Renslow family

Marvin Renslow, his wife, Sandy, and their children Kaley and Tyler, of Lutz. Renslow died Feb. 12, when the Continental commuter plane he was piloting crashed near Buffalo, N.Y.

Marvin Renslow made a lot of stops on his route to the captain's seat of an airliner — reservations manager, travel agent for tobacco company VIPs, high-speed Internet salesman.

Even when he caught on with a small feeder airline in his early 40s, the pay was so puny he stocked shelves at a Publix near his home in Lutz to help pay bills.

By December, his dream was fulfilled.

"I just love doing it,'' he told his brother in Utah "We've got nice equipment. The planes are awesome.''

The long journey came to a tragic end Feb. 12 when the Continental Express Colgan Air Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 he was flying to Buffalo through freezing rain and snow crashed, killing 49 people onboard and a man in the house the plane hit.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board will begin three days of hearings in Washington on the crash. The agency's focus is firmly on Renslow.

Accident investigators suggested in March that the pilot pulled the plane into a steep climb that sent it tumbling to the ground. Ice had a "minimal impact'' on how the aircraft performed, the agency said. Board members won't reach conclusions this week, but their questions will include:

• Why didn't Renslow keep the plane at a safe speed? On approach to land at Buffalo's airport, an alarm called a "stick shaker'' activated, the NTSB says. The device warns pilots they are flying too slow and in danger of an aerodynamic "stall,'' in which air flowing over the wings can't keep the plane aloft.

• Why did he respond by yanking the plane into a climb? Pilots are trained to do the opposite — gently lower the nose and add speed to avoid a stall.

• Did Renslow have proper rest when he reported for work Feb. 12 and when Flight 3407 left Newark Liberty International that night?

Colgan Air said in a statement in March that facts the NTSB released didn't identify a cause of the crash. "Our crews are prepared to handle emergency situations they might face,'' it read.

Suggestions that Renslow's mistakes made the plane go out of control have puzzled and angered his family and friends. It just doesn't square with the meticulous pilot, unflappable manager and devout family man they knew.

"He had the competency to fly anything," said Alan Burner, associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Lutz, where Renslow worshiped each Sunday and Wednesday night with his wife, Sandy, and children, Tyler, 17, and Kaley, 12.

Dean Adcock of Belmond, Iowa, a friend since childhood, called Renslow a "by the book'' aviator. "He didn't take shortcuts," Adcock said. "He was one who always followed his training, always followed his manuals."

• • •

Raised in the southwest Iowa town of Shenandoah, population 5,000, Renslow was a trophy-winning bowler and standout drummer. He led the high school marching band as drum major and played at basketball games and formal concerts. He stocked shelves and checked out customers at the Hy-Vee grocery.

His father was a welder. College wasn't in the family plans and teens typically left town to find a career after high school, said brother Melvin Renslow of Pleasant Grove, Utah. Tired of Midwest winters, Marvin moved to Orlando after graduating in 1979.

He worked at a Howard Johnson hotel outside Walt Disney World then settled in at the reservation center for Piedmont Airlines, later absorbed by USAir. Renslow met his wife there, and they took trips to South Korea and Australia on the airline's dime.

They moved to USAir's reservations center in Winston-Salem, N.C. But in his early 30s, Renslow had burned out on the job. He started flying Piper Cubs and earned an aviation degree from Guilford Technical Community College near Greensboro, N.C., in 1992.

But Renslow remained stuck in the chair-bound travel business. He was a travel agent with American Express, booking trips at R.J. Reynolds for VIPs in its Winston Winners and Smokin' Joe Camel clubs. In 1997, American Express moved him to a corporate travel office in Tampa.

Raising a young family left little money to pay for the kind of intensive training required to get hired as a commercial pilot. He went to work for Verizon in 1999 selling high-speed Internet service. Four years later, Renslow got his big break: a buyout rich enough to launch his new career.

He enrolled in Gulfstream Training Academy in Fort Lauderdale in 2003. For about $25,000, he and fellow students trained on a 19-seat Beech 1900 turboprop, then received 250 hours flying passengers as a first officer for Gulfstream International Airlines around Florida and the Bahamas.

• • •

The life of a rookie pilot for a feeder airline isn't easy or lucrative.

Renslow told stories about flying planes with bad indicator lights or switches that didn't work. "Sometimes (Marvin) would get out of the plane and yell at the mechanics. 'Fix this. I don't want to die out here,' '' said Melvin Renslow.

He was hired at Colgan in 2005 as a first officer for less than $19,000 a year. Based in Houston, Renslow flew 36-seat Saab turboprops around Texas. He moonlighted at the Publix in Land O'Lakes, first for the cash but later more to help out when managers needed a hand. Publix said he wasn't working for the grocery chain at the time of the crash.

The job kept him away from home about half the month. He'd call each night, saying the same prayer with Kaley.

Renslow didn't complain about the money, the hours and the planes. It's what he had to do to move up. Or as he put it, "drive the old Edsel to get to the Chevy.''

In December, Renslow started flying the Bombardier Dash-8 Q400, Colgan's newest plane and its largest with 74 seats. He had flown 109 hours as a captain in the plane and had 3,379 total hours of flight experience.

Friends and relatives dread the spotlight this week's hearing could focus on Renslow's mistakes. Some question how investigators can say definitely what caused the crash. His brother is steeling himself for bad news.

"It's hard,'' says Melvin Renslow. "You don't want to think anyone would do anything (intentionally) to hurt somebody. I know he wouldn't. I make human errors every day, and I don't do it on purpose.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Federal hearings into fatal Buffalo, N.Y., crash to focus on pilot's error 05/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 10:55am]
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