WASHINGTON — A key ingredient of a crash Feb. 12 that killed 49 people on a plane on approach to the Buffalo airport, and one more on the ground, was an error made by the flight crew at Newark before takeoff, the staff of the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday.
The captain and the first officer — who have already been faulted for chatting during the flight — entered contradictory information into cockpit computer systems, the staff said.
With icing possible that frigid night, the captain, Marvin Renslow of Lutz, 47, pushed a button designed to help protect the plane by priming a low-speed warning system to alert early, at a higher speed than usual. This is because ice on the wings requires a plane to fly faster.
But the first officer aboard Continental Connection Flight 3407, Rebecca L. Shaw, 24, set a separate program using ordinary speeds. Shaw has also been criticized for sending text messages before takeoff, possibly distracting her. She also had a bad cold.
When the alarm finally triggered, Renslow reacted improperly.
Evan Byrne, a psychologist on the safety board staff, said the captain's response was "consistent with startle and confusion."
Renslow pushed the throttle forward for more power, but not far enough; the first officer did not notice. Then he pulled back on the control column, forcing the nose into the air — the opposite of what he should have done. The plane was not actually stalling until the captain pushed the nose up, the safety board staff said, and there was very little ice on the plane.
But the basic problem was poor response to the alarm, the staff said. Handling the low-speed alarm, Dr. Byrne said, "did not require exceptional skills or inputs on the flight controls."
"Neither pilot made any call-outs or commands associated with the company's stall-recovery procedure," Dr. Byrne said.
The fact that the alarm was about to go off should have been clear from a cockpit display. Neither pilot saw it, apparently.
Renslow had experienced previous training problems. He had failed five performance checks over the course of his flying career, although the airline, Colgan, knew of only three.
And Shaw might not have been in top form. She had arrived in Newark by flying all of the previous night, on two different planes, from the Pacific Northwest. At one point, Renslow asked if he could fly lower because that would be easier on Shaw's sinuses.
The board's draft report said the two pilots "squandered time and attention, which were limited resources," in conversation with each other about topics unrelated to flying the plane.
Renslow's family in Lutz was not commenting on the NTSB staff findings, according to an e-mail statement from their church, First Baptist Church of Lutz. His brother, Melvin Renslow of Pleasant Grove, Utah, said family members aren't convinced investigators know precisely the circumstances in the cockpit before the crash.
"We'd love to find out exactly what happened,'' said Melvin Renslow. "We hope everyone knows Rebecca and Marvin did everything they could to fly the plane.''
The crash has raised questions about training and experience standards for pilots on commuter airlines.
The vice chairman of the board, Christopher A. Hart, said that one problem for the airlines was that they had mostly lost "the benefit of a pipeline of military pilots." Not only are military pilots well trained, he said, but the Pentagon also has "a sensible and robust washout system."
"In the civilian world, our washout system is not quite so good," he said.