The crash and the consequences
The crash of a DHC-8-400 (Q400) on approach to Buffalo, N. Y. brought on the all-time most egregious case of smoke and flames rulemaking by the FAA. It was dictated by Congress, it makes no sense, and it will have a lasting deleterious effect on air service to smaller cities and on airline flying as a profession.
The rule established new standards for first officers. Basically they now have to have, going in, an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and 1,500 hours total flying time. In some cases, primarily related to the nature of training, education, or military flying, the hour requirement can be reduced by a bit. The requirement used to be a commercial certificate and 250 hours total time.
Everyone knows that new first officers on regional airlines make little money. It is barely a minimum wage job. Yet now the price of admission has been multiplied many times. One media report said there was not a shortage of airline pilots, there is just a shortage of pilots who are willing to spend that much time and money training for a job that pays so little. That makes sense.
Already, regional airlines are retiring airplanes and cutting service. They could pay pilots more and charge passengers more but the public doesn’t want that. The public wants dirt-cheap, 100-percent safe air transportation. Well, people who live in smaller cities will find less risk from flying simply because affordability will go one way and accessibility will go the opposite way. That will leave a lot of people without the option of air travel.
To me, the sad thing about all this is that what happened that night near Buffalo wouldn’t have been prevented by the new rule. There is much about that accident that cries out for change but it was not addressed in the rulemaking. It’s like that mouse running around in your house. You can go to Ace Hardware and buy a mouse trap and get rid of the rodent, or, you can use your double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun to dispatch the critter, peripheral damage be damned. Our government chose the shotgun approach in the aftermath of the Colgan Q400 accident. They missed the target but did a massive amount of peripheral damage.
The crew of the Q400 was an accident looking for a place to happen on that fateful night. The captain was properly certified but had a history of failed check rides and remedial training. He had over 3,000 flying hours and over 100 hours in the Q400. The first officer had 2,200 hours with almost 800 of those in the Q400. So, no shortage of flying time, as was suggested by the resulting rulemaking, just some truly lousy flying and management.
A reading of the accident report suggests that both pilots were tired and before takeoff the first officer complained of not feeling well. She had commuted from Seattle to Newark to fly the flight. The FAA did address fatigue in a rulemaking but did not address the role of commuting in putting tired pilots in the cockpit. A large number of airline pilots commute and often have been on the move for many hours before flying their flights.
The crew carried on a rather continuous conversation about things unrelated to the flight and the NTSB noted that all this conversation could have kept them from properly preparing for the Buffalo arrival.
Both crew coordination and cockpit resource management (to use buzzwords) pretty much fell apart as the airplane moved closer to Buffalo. The captain was given the no-ice Vref for the approach where the system that operates the stick shaker and pusher was at the setting for operation in ice. This basically increases the speeds at which the shaker and pusher activate by 18 knots. The speed the captain had in mind for Vref was actually lower than the shaker/pusher speed for initial activation.
As the approach began, the airplane was originally going too fast. The power was reduced almost to idle to reduce the airspeed, which it did, rapidly. When it moved below 131 knots, the stick shaker activated and the trouble started. It was at this point that you have to acknowledge that thousands of hours of instructing and doing stalls in Piper or Cessna trainers would have done the crew less than no good on this night.
At 2,000 feet you can slow too much in a light trainer and not get near a serious problem. You can stall at 2,000 feet and even a ham-handed and slow-thinking pilot can recover. That is not true in a large turboprop as was evident in this Q400.
The gyrations they went through in the Q400 before it plunged to the ground were notable. The autopilot had disconnected when the shaker first activated and the pilot was hand-flying. I don’t think he had the remotest idea about what was going on because he actually pulled against the shaker/pusher three times and at one point manually put the airplane in a 19-degree nose-up attitude.
The first officer was of no help and did not question the captain’s actions. At one point she actually retracted the flaps without being told to do so.
While this was going on, the airplane rolled rapidly left and then rapidly right, finally doing what we used to call “spinning in.” The time elapsed, from the beginning of the loss of control, to the end, was about 25 seconds. If that doesn’t sound like much, time 25 seconds and imagine yourself at night, at low altitude, in an airplane you apparently don’t understand, and consider how much shake, rattle and roll was experienced in those 25 seconds.
When I read this report I thought back to an evaluation flight in a Fairchild (nee Swearingen) Metro commuter airliner. It is a much smaller airplane than a Q400 but similar in a lot of ways.
I did an approach to a stall, got the stick shaker, and followed the recovery procedure of reducing angle of attack and increasing power. At that time the goal was to lose no altitude in a recovery from an approach to a stall. Since that time, someone awakened and it is now okay to lose a little altitude if it results in a quicker recovery. Just don’t lose a foot more than is available.
I asked the demo pilot if the Metro had a shaker/pusher because of bad stall characteristics. Mistake! He turned the system off and invited me to stall the airplane and see for myself.
The airplane broke sharply and rolled rapidly. Clearly, this recovery would bear no similarity to the one used for recovery from an approach to a stall. I rapidly reduced angle of attack, got a windshield full of Texas, and then recovered from the dive.
I offer that as an illustration that if one of these airplanes is truly stalled at a relatively low altitude, chances of a recovery are from slim to none. That is why they have shaker/pushers.
The crew this night was at a significant disadvantage. Both were tired. The first officer had made that long Seattle-Newark trek and she had told the captain that she didn’t feel well. The captain hadn’t had normal rest, either, and the time of the accident was at about his normal bedtime.
I thought about a long commute I once made when thinking about how sharp the first officer might have been. I left London one morning on Concorde, got to New York at an earlier hour local time than I had left London, and was in my office at One Park Avenue not long after 9 a.m. To be honest, I didn’t get a lot done that day and took an early train home to New Jersey that afternoon. I would have hardly been effective in the cockpit of an airplane and my commute was a lot shorter in time than the first officer’s.
The captain of that Colgan flight had those other issues as well. He had, over time, failed four FAA check rides for a certificate or rating and had three unsatisfactory airline check events. Nobody is perfect and anybody can have a bad day and perform poorly on a check ride but seven times and you become a captain? Just think how the public would react if a person had seven drunk driving arrests and wasn’t walking.
The 1,500 hour requirement for first officers is purely ludicrous when you consider how little good light airplane time might do in a heavy airplane cockpit. I heard a USAF training person once say that light airplane training is valuable to them, up to a point. Past that point, it has little additional value. The USAF actually uses GA airplanes in a 25 hour screening/introductory program.
Consider the fact, too, that a USAF pilot does not have many more than 200 hours when winged and I am sure there are many who fly out a tour of duty without amassing that supposedly magical 1,500 hours.
If anyone had been interested in doing something constructive instead of something for show, the rulemaking would have not been so unrealistic.
It is quite logical that a type rating should be required before a pilot could act as a first officer in Part 121 airline operations. Taking away the artificial flying time requirement would free professional training institutions to do what they do best, prepare people for a specific role. Schools often pair with airlines so programs could be developed to prepare pilots for positions with those airlines, flying the airplanes that they use. This is done to some extent here now, and it is widely done in other countries.
The role of commuting and fatigue should be addressed, too. There are valid reasons for a pilot to commute but there needs to be a framework of how much in terms of time or distance is too much. To allow coast-to coast commutes without prescribed rest between that and duty is just too much.
When you look at the captain of the Q400 it becomes clear that this was not pilot error, it was system error. There is simply no system in place to weed out the weaker pilots. Aviation may be unique in that a person can try and try again as many times as it takes to pass the test. That might be okay for most pilots but not for airline captains. The public expects and deserves the best there. The FAA and the airlines need to develop a system that ensures that.
Clearly the Congress/FAA reaction to the Q400 accident was a gross error. But do you think they will ever fess up to the mistake and fix the real problems?
Finally, here is a challenge for your imagination: What kind of rulemaking furor do you think would come from our reactive Congress/FAA were a U. S. carrier to be involved in an event like that in Malaysia?