A week before the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 12, 2009, deadly commuter plane crash near Buffalo, New York (NY), the National Transportation Safety Board issued its conclusion that pilot error caused the Colgan Air accident that killed 50 people. The plane was flying as Continental Connection Flight 3407 and was seconds from touching down following the 45-minute trip from Newark International Airport.

Colgan Air Continental Connection plane crash
The NTSB noted in a press release that its investigators determined the accident occurred specifically because “the captain of Colgan Air flight 3407 inappropriately responded to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover.” An automatic warning mechanism that engages when a plane is about to lose engine power in midair, a shaking stick signals a pilot to push forward on the main control. The pilot pulled back.

A fuller report posted to the NTSB Web site cites Flight 3407’s pilot and co-pilot’s lack of attention to the plane’s instrument panel, lack of experience and physical impairments as factors that contributed to the crash. Translated, the investigation turned up evidence that the pilot and co-pilot had only a few hundreds hours of combined flight time, they had gotten little sleep in the days leading up to the accident, they were chatting rather than monitoring the plane’s performance, and, it appears, the co-pilot was ill and had been using her cell phone to send text messages from the cockpit.

The NTSB reconstruction of the final minutes of Flight 3407 looks like this:

Fatigued, distracted and inexperienced pilots put airline passengers at great risk. Few people walk away from commercial plane crashes, and crashes due to pilot errors account for fully half of all fatal commercial airline accidents since 1950.

To the extent that the problems identified by the NTSB are unique to Colgan, those problems are of special concern to people in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and the other cities of Hampton Roads, Virginia (VA) because Colgan Air planes and crews operate out of Norfolk International Airport–ORF in Federal Avition Administration code. Colgan flies U.S. Airways Express, United Express and Continental Connection  routes to and from Newark and La Guardia.

Recognizing that all commuter and regional airlines can have issues similar to those that led to the Flight 3407 tragedy, the FAA will soon issue new regulations aimed at ensuring pilots rest adequately between in-air shifts and improving pre- and post-licensing training.  Colgan Air has already reexamined and updated its pilot training programs. Both announcements are good news. I hope the changes have the intended effect of keeping commuter and regional plane travel as safe as possible.