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NTSB documents put focus on Lutz pilot, first officer in Flight 3407 crash near Buffalo

WASHINGTON — They are two people sharing an office, tending to daily routines while chitchatting about careers, colleagues and working conditions. But in this case, they are piloting a plane carrying 45 passengers through bad weather.

Most cockpits feature a fair amount of chit-chat. But a transcript released Tuesday in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 shows Capt. Marvin Renslow of Lutz and First Officer Rebecca Lynne Shaw spent an extraordinary amount of time talking about matters unrelated to flight.

They even chatted while flying under 10,000 feet, when federal rules prohibit such conversations.

Documents and transcripts released by the National Transportation Safety Board suggest a series of errors by the pilots in the crash that killed all 44 passengers, four crew members, an off-duty pilot and one person on the ground outside Buffalo, N.Y.:

• Neither pilot recognized the twin-turboprop Bombardier Q400, flying from Newark to Buffalo, was dangerously losing speed as it prepared to land at Buffalo International.

• Shaw retracted the flaps, panels that help keep the plane aloft at low speeds, without first telling the captain.

• Renslow pulled back on the controls to make the plane climb, which slowed it even more. Two seconds later, the aircraft went into an aerodynamic stall, then plummeted to the ground.

The NTSB is examining other issues, including whether crew fatigue contributed to the crash. Shaw left her home near Seattle the day before the crash on a FedEx flight to Memphis. She flew late at night in another jet to her crew base in Newark, N.J.

The documents also show that Renslow, 47, had 3,379 flying hours but had failed at least four pilot tests since 1991. He was "disapproved" for a variety of planes and tasks until he was able demonstrate proficiency later.

For much of the trip to Buffalo, the pilots chatted about their careers and other matters.

"I'm so in limbo right now it's actually kind of . . . interesting, like I don't know where I'll be in a year," said Shaw, 24, who had worked for about a year for Colgan Air, which operated the Continental commuter flight.

Renslow, who had previous careers as an airline reservations center supervisor and an Internet service salesman for Verizon, indicated he might be ready for yet another new career.

"I'm ready to move on," he said, yawning. "Excuse me. It's kind of like me. You know, I started . . . this little gig late in life."

Shaw said, "I have goals but I have such a wide range of goals, I don't know exactly what I want."

They also spoke about an air traffic controller in Houston known as "Mr. Happy," and Shaw indicated she was unfamiliar with icing.

"I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced. I've never seen any — I've never experienced any of that," she said. "I don't want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know, I'd have freaked out. I'd have, like, seen this much ice and thought, 'Oh my gosh we were going to crash.' "

The crew had noticed ice buildup on the wings and windshield during the descent, but the NTSB has downplayed icing as a factor of the crash and has focused instead on the pilots' actions.

Renslow and Shaw periodically interrupted their chitchat to talk with air traffic controllers and conduct checklists, but they returned to the casual conversation as the plane neared Buffalo.

The cockpit transcript and other documents released Tuesday indicate they were making a routine approach but that Renslow failed to maintain enough speed.

The first hint of trouble was when the plane's stick shaker began rattling, signaling the plane did not have enough airspeed to stay aloft.

"Jesus Christ," Renslow said.

He pulled back on the control column, apparently trying to keep the plane's nose up, but that probably hampered the plane's ability to fly. He increased the power, but not enough to compensate for the nose-up angle.

Shaw said, "I put the flaps up," which indicates she retracted the wing panels that help the plane stay aloft during lower speeds. Retracting them would worsen their situation.

The pilots tried frantically to recover, but the plane began to roll back and forth.

"Should the gear up? (sic)'' Shaw asked.

"Gear up, oh (expletive)," Renslow replied.

"We're down," he said.

Shaw screamed just as the plane hit the ground.

NTSB documents put focus on Lutz pilot, first officer in Flight 3407 crash near Buffalo 05/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:48pm]

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