BUFFALO, N.Y. – The commuter plane that crashed near Buffalo was on autopilot until just before it went down in icy weather, indicating the pilot may have ignored U.S. government safety recommendations and violated the airline’s own policy for flying in such conditions, an investigator said Sunday.
Federal guidelines and the airline’s own instructions suggest a pilot should not engage the autopilot when flying through ice. If the ice is severe, the company that operated Continental Flight 3407 requires pilots to shut off the autopilot.
“You may be able in a manual mode to sense something sooner than the autopilot can sense it,” said Steve Chealander of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which also recommends pilots disengage the autopilot in icy conditions.
Automatic safety devices returned the aircraft to manual control just before it fell from the sky, Chealander said.
During a Sunday briefing, Chealander described the flight’s frantic last moments, which included a steep drop and rollercoaster-like pitching and rolling.
Chealander said information from the plane’s flight data recorder indicates the plane pitched up at an angle of 31 degrees, then pitched down at 45 degrees.
The plane rolled to the left at 46 degrees, then snapped back to the right at 105 degrees – 15 degrees beyond vertical.
Radar data shows Flight 3407 fell from 549 metres above sea level to 305 metres in five seconds, he said. Passengers and crew would have experienced G-forces up to twice as strong as on the ground.
The plane crashed belly-first onto a house Thursday night, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.
Just before they went down in a suburban neighbourhood near the Buffalo airport, the pilots discussed “significant” ice buildup on the wings and windshield. Other aircraft in the area told air traffic controllers they also experienced icing around the same time.
The Canadian-made Dash 8 Q400 plane operated by Colgan Air was equipped with a “stick shaker” mechanism that rattles the yoke to warn the pilot if the plane is about to lose aerodynamic lift, a condition called a stall.
When the stick shaker engaged, it would have automatically turned off the autopilot, Chealander said.
Before that, the pilot switched on an anti-stall device that increases the speed of the plane by 20 knots and gives a pilot more margin to recover from a stall if it occurs.
Chealander said the plane’s de-icing system was turned on 11 minutes after it took off from Newark, N.J., and stayed on for the entire flight. Indicator lights showed the system appeared to be working.
He said the pilot was being “very conservative” by turning it on so soon.
Investigators who examined both engines said they appeared to be running normally at the time of the crash, too.
In a December safety alert issued by the NTSB, the agency said pilots in icy conditions should turn off or limit the use of the autopilot to better “feel” changes in the handling qualities of the airplane.
Still, Chealander was careful not to criticize the pilot.
“Everything that should have been done was done, so we keep looking,” he said.
“We keep looking, trying to find out why this happened.”
Colgan Air operates a fleet of 51 regional turboprops for Continental Connection, United Express and US Airways Express.
Chealander said Colgan, like most airlines, had begun following NTSB recommendations that pilots use de-icing systems as soon as they enter conditions that might lead to icing.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency advises pilots to disengage the autopilot when ice is accumulating but the guidance is not mandatory.
She also said some planes are certified to be flown on autopilot in icing conditions because doing so “may actually keep the aircraft at a steadier speed and altitude than a pilot could flying it manually.”
Brown said the agency considered making the guidance mandatory but others in the aviation industry argued against it, citing the capabilities of such advanced planes.
She did not know if the 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft that crashed Thursday was certified to be on autopilot during icing conditions.
By Sunday, authorities had recovered the remains of at least 15 people from the wreckage, as crews raced to finish their work before a storm arrives later in the week.
Recovery crews could need as much as four days to remove the remains from the site. Chealander described the efforts as an “excavation.”
“Keep in mind, there’s an airplane that fell on top of a house and they’re now intermingled,” he said.
DNA and dental records will be used to identify the remains, he said.
“Whether we can identify everybody or not remains to be seen but it will be weeks, the identification process,” Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony Billittier said.
Once all the remains are recovered, the focus will turn to removing wreckage of the 74-seat aircraft from the neighbourhood.