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Stunned N.Y. town mourns amid questions about Flight 3407 procedures

Residents of Clarence Center try to grasp how and why they were visited by disaster when a jet slammed into a home. The NTSB says the craft was on autopilot in icy conditions.

February 16, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter and Erika Hayasaki

CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y., AND NEW YORK — Residents of Clarence Center spent Sunday grappling with the randomness and destruction of the plane crash that jolted their quiet community, even as new details emerged indicating that Continental Connection Flight 3407 was flying on autopilot in icy conditions as it made its descent into Buffalo last week.

Sorrow was mixed with questions as people learned that through a crucial period of the flight, the pilots of the commuter plane were not flying manually, which, according to Steve Chealander of the National Transportation Safety Board, can sometimes help pilots sense problems sooner.

"We suggest you take it off of autopilot to better feel the airplane and better be able to stay ahead rapidly of those changes because of icing," Chealander said at a news briefing Sunday.

The NTSB recommends flying manually in severely icy weather.

The Federal Aviation Administration has not made it a rule to disengage autopilot, but some airlines, including Colgan Air, which operated the Continental Connection flight, have made it a policy in "severe" icing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Plane crash: A caption with an article in Monday's Section A about the crash of a commuter airliner in Clarence Center, N.Y., described the aircraft as a jet. The Bombardier Q400 Dash 8 is a turboprop.

Chealander said that conditions at the time of the crash Thursday night did not appear to fall into the severe category, which he defined as "flight in freezing rain, freezing drizzle or mixed icing conditions, super-cooled liquid water and ice crystals."

"Basically it's ice that's so severe you shouldn't be in it," he said. "It's not what we saw here."

The pilots had reported "significant" ice buildup on their windshield and wings. The plane's de-icing system had been turned on 11 minutes after departure from Newark, N.J., and remained on the rest of the flight, Chealander said.

He said that the preliminary autopilot finding had not been confirmed by information on the plane's flight data recorder.

Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, of Lutz, Fla., was one of 49 on board who died in the crash, along with First Officer Rebecca Shaw, 24, of Maple Valley, Wash.

Renslow had logged 3,379 hours of flying time in his career, Chealander said.

The pilots had 26 seconds between the time they realized something was wrong and the crash, as indicated by the "black box" recording, Chealander said.

The last radar recording showed the plane dropped 800 feet in five seconds.

At a town meeting in the Clarence High School auditorium Sunday, a father choked up when he said: "My daughter is 16. She was at the crash site that night. She's going to be stepping on an airplane next month to visit her grandparents. What do I say to her as a father?"

Another resident living near the crash site described the horror his family endured when the media mistakenly reported it was his house that the plane had crashed into.

The resident, unsure of the address of the wrecked and burning house, had phoned 911 and gave his address, figuring emergency responders would find the crash scene.

As a result, his sons and other family members across the country began receiving phone calls from media telling them their parents were dead.

Other residents complained about the media intrusion and the crippling of their neighborhood, where roads have been shut, homes evacuated and streets overrun by reporters and emergency workers.

Scott Bylewski, a supervisor for the town of Clarence, told the audience of several hundred: "This will not be over in a few days. It may take weeks before we can resume any semblance of normalcy to our town."

At a service at Zion Lutheran Church, Pastor Steve Biegner gave a sermon addressing the struggle to understand why it happened here: "Again and again I heard, 'This could have been me. It could have been my house. I live in the flight path too.' "

The church is about three blocks from the crash site, and many in attendance knew Douglas C. Wielinski, 61, who was killed in his house on Long Street.

His wife, Karen Wielinski, 57, and their daughter, Jill, 22, escaped.

Sunday's service, one of three at the church, was filled. People sat in rows of folding chairs in the back of the sanctuary and stood along the sides of the pews.

Biegner said he spent the morning praying with emergency workers before they climbed into the wreckage for the third day to recover victims.

"It has been an incredible 48 hours," Biegner told the church. "Phone call after phone call . . . everyone wanted to help."

As some sat with somber faces, he told the audience: "In the midst of tears and joy and questions, we have hope and this day has hope for us to keep on moving forward."


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