Earlier this week, the National Transportation Safety Board held hearings on last winter’s crash of a jet near Buffalo, and appeared to lay the blame at the feet of the pilot. It — and we in the media — pointed out the few seconds the pilot had to do something about a plane that was dangerously close to falling out of the sky, but he had not been “trained.” So he pulled up, made the problem worse, and he and all aboard died.
Let’s get the perspective from inside the cockpit. The semi-anonymous blogger who writes “Blogging at FL250” provides plenty of compelling analysis.
There was plenty of pressure to be had in the last thirty seconds of Colgan 3407. That the stick shaker was a complete surprise is self-evident. We don’t know where the Captain’s attention was in the moments before stick shaker activation; perhaps looking at the wingtips to see how the deice boots were coping, perhaps around the cockpit to see if anything had been missed during the rushed descent and approach checks. Maybe the long day had got to him and he was simply zoning out. It doesn’t really matter; it’s very unlikely he had any clue that the stick shaker was coming before it went off.
It is difficult to explain to those who have never flown airplanes with stick shakers just how jarring their activation is – even in the sim, much less the real world. The whole idea behind them was to have one signal in the cockpit that is so overpowering and unmistakable that the crew cannot possibly ignore or misinterpret it. Both yokes shake so heavily that you can feel it even if your hands are nowhere near the yoke. Loud clattering noise fills the previously quiet cockpit. The autopilot disconnects with the accompanying lights and aural warnings. In the Q400’s case, this is a loud horn that repeats over and over until you acknowledge it by pressing the autopilot disconnect button on the yoke. The Colgan crew never did so – they had their hands full enough already – and that sound must have surely contributed to the chaos and confusion that filled that cockpit in the last 30 seconds.
According to Matthew Wald of the New York Times, the NTSB may recommend a change it recommended after the crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone in Virginia/Eveleth — more warning equipment. But some pilots apparently think more flashing lights, horns and gizmos only add to the distraction pilots face.