By all accounts Capt. Marvin Renslow of Lutz is remembered as a good and decent man, a loving father and husband, a talented musician and a devoted person of faith. But even good and decent people make mistakes. In Capt. Renslow's case, his errors in judgment and airmanship contributed to the deaths of 50 people on a February night outside Buffalo. So did the failure of the commuter airline to see to it that the airplane was in the hands of two capable, rested pilots with reasonable experience flying in wintry conditions. The airline's attempt to place the blame squarely on the pilots is an effort to dodge its considerable responsibility, and federal officials should not allow that to happen.
Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw were barely in command of a twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Q400, flying Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on a commuter route served by subcontractor Colgan Air. There is no greater responsibility for a pilot than the lives of passengers. Indeed the training of those who serve in the nation's cockpits is grounded on the guiding principle of knowing how to deal with the unexpected, the unanticipated, the sudden emergency in flight.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the tragedy of Flight 3407 reveals both Renslow and Shaw violated federal regulations and engaging in idle chit-chat that made them oblivious to the quickly emerging icing threat to the aircraft and its passengers. Once the pilots realized the danger they were in, both Renslow and Shaw — according to cockpit transcripts — made several critical mistakes that could have been easily avoided by more capable hands. Shaw retracted the flaps that help keep the plane aloft at low speeds without first telling Renslow, worsening the situation. Renslow pulled back on the controls to make the plane climb, which slowed it further. Two seconds later, the plane stalled and plummeted to the ground.
This was an avoidable accident, but the pilots may not have had the skills to deal with the icing situation. Documents reveal Renslow was a pilot with at best marginal skills, having failed at least four proficiency tests. Shaw had never flown in conditions where icing was a weather factor.
Yet their employer, Colgan Air, allowed these two, who had never received proper training to deal with icing issues, to command an aircraft flying into an area infamous for its severe weather in the dead of winter. That sort of management indifference to the lives of passengers is unconscionable, and the commuter airline should be held accountable.
The public has every right to expect that those at the controls of the nation's commercial aircraft represent the very highest levels of professional skills. Public safety demands it. So does common decency.