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Better alarm system urged for troubled aircraft

Safety experts testifying about a plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people say pilots should be warned earlier about dangerously slow aircraft speed.

May 15, 2009|Rebecca Cole

WASHINGTON — An alarm that would warn pilots earlier of dangerously slow aircraft speed could have helped prevent a plane crash that killed 50 people in February, safety officials told an investigative panel Thursday.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman raised the idea on the third and final day of a hearing into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which went down near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground. She said the current warning system, which violently shakes the pilot's control stick, goes off too late.

"I think this crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 20 seconds," Hersman said. "The room is on fire at that point."

NASA scientist and cockpit safety expert Robert Dismukes agreed, saying the evidence collected by the aircraft's voice data recorder showed that pilot Marvin Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw were distracted. However, he said a better speed warning system would be "well worth looking at."

Fatigue was also a factor in the crash, said safety expert Rory Kay of the Air Line Pilots Assn. Kay said the Federal Aviation Administration's "duty and rest" rules were outdated, remaining nearly unchanged for 60 years.

The regulations say crew members must receive eight hours of rest within a 24-hour period, but evidence collected by the NTSB shows that Renslow and Shaw each had little or no sleep the night before the doomed flight. Both had commuted to Newark, N.J., their base for Colgan Air and where the flight originated. Renslow lived in Florida and Shaw in Washington state.

"An overhaul is absolutely past due," Kay said.

Hersman also voiced concerns about regional pilots' low salaries and companies' relocation plans, which force crew members to commute long distances because they can't afford to live closer to their base.

Kay said airlines should consider the human cost of their business decisions. He said pilots were treated "like migrant workers, moving around and chasing bases."

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rcole@tribune.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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