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Smaller planes are safe, experienced pilots agree

Anyone who flies small commuter planes feels a twinge when scenes from the crash of Continental Express Flight 3407 flash across a TV screen.

Maybe you've become accustomed to the roar of turboprop engines. You're good with ducking to walk down the narrow aisle to your seat. But at some point the question pops into your head.

Are these planes as safe as big airliners?

I asked three aviation veterans — a United Airlines pilot, a retired US Airways pilot and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Their unanimous response: absolutely.

Obviously, the question papers over a universe of nuances. Regional airlines like Continental Express carrier Colgan Air operate differently than global giants. Small turboprops have different characteristics than large jets. And pilots who fly them generally have less time in the cockpit.

That last point has been getting a lot of attention since the accident outside Buffalo Thursday.

Capt. Marvin Renslow finished training on the Dash 8 aircraft two months ago. He had 110 hours flying the plane. Renslow flew most of his 3,370 hours in 3 1/2 years at Colgan on a much smaller Saab twin-engine turboprop.

By contrast, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who landed his US Airways jet safely in the Hudson River last month, had flown nearly 20,000 hours in 28 years.

Regional airlines have grown rapidly in recent years as major carriers shifted flying on lightly traveled routes to their partners' turboprops and small jets. That caused a pilot shortage. To fill the jobs, regional airlines reduced minimum flying experience for new hire co-pilots.

Safety experts worried a few years ago that the lower standards might result in more accidents, said Cass Howell, chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle. Statistics subsequently gleaned from accident reports didn't show that air safety suffered.

There's no clear cause-and-effect relationship between pilot experience and accident rates, says John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association.

"Sully Sullenberger is a good example of what experience can do for you," says Cox. "But a lot of experienced aviators make mistakes and a lot of low-time aviators have done good things. You can't draw a quick conclusion."

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

Smaller planes are safe, experienced pilots agree 02/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 9:31pm]

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