Families encourage overhaul of pilot training

WASHINGTON — Prodded by the families of people killed in a regional airline crash, federal officials issued significantly tougher training requirements for pilots Tuesday.

One of the most important changes requires airlines to provide better training on how to prevent and recover from an aerodynamic stall, in which a plane slows to the point that it loses lift. That was what happened to Continental Express Flight 3407, which crashed on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in western New York on Feb. 12, 2009, killing all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground.

The crash victims’ families have campaigned relentlessly for nearly five years for changes in federal regulations to address safety issues raised by the accident, including better pilot training. The families won a major victory in 2010 when they persuaded Congress to pass a sweeping aviation safety law. Since then, they’ve kept pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to follow through on key safety provisions. They’ve made dozens of lobbying visits to Washington to meet with members of Congress and administration officials, and have attended aviation hearings and held news conferences.

Under the new requirements — the most substantial in two decades — airlines will have to provide flight simulator training for pilots on how to deal with a stall.

The captain and first officer of Flight 3407, which was operated for Continental Airlines by now-defunct Colgan Air, failed to notice that the speed of the twin-engine turboprop had dropped dangerously low, an investigation of the crash revealed. The captain, Marvin Renslow, was startled when a stall warning system called a stick-shaker, which violently shakes the pilot’s control yoke, suddenly went off. The appropriate response to such an event would be to push forward on the yoke to lower the nose of the plane in order to pick up speed, while increasing engine power.

But Renslow pulled back hard on the yoke, sending the plane into a stall. At that point a second safety system called a stick pusher tried to point the plane’s nose down, but Renslow again pulled back hard on the yoke. There was little chance of recovery after that, and the plane fell from the sky, killing all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground.

Renslow had not received any hands-on training in how to recover from a stall in the plane he was flying, only classroom lessons, and so was experiencing a stall for the first time, investigators said. Until that crash, the emphasis in the airline industry had been on training pilots how to avoid getting into situations where a plane might stall, with far less attention on how to recover from one.

FAA officials began working on new pilot training requirements as far back as 1999, but made extensive revisions in their work to take into account the safety issues raised by Flight 3407.

“This rule will give our pilots the most advanced training available to handle emergencies they may encounter,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference. The new requirements are focused on preventing events that “while rare, can be catastrophic,” he said.

But family members complained that FAA officials are giving airlines five years before they have to implement the new requirements.

“It is hard to see any sense of urgency to significantly reduce aviation accidents,” said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert, in the crash. “That will be a full 10 years since the needless loss of our loved ones in a completely preventable crash and a full 20 years since this training rule-making project was initiated.”

Other changes required by the new rule:

— Pilots’ performance will be tracked and airlines must create a remedial training program for pilots who repeatedly demonstrate deficiencies in skills tests. Renslow had failed several such tests, but was allowed to retake them.

— Expanded training for pilots on how, when they are sitting in the second cockpit seat, they should monitor the performance of the other pilot who is flying the plane.

— Expanded training on how to handle crosswinds and wind gusts. A Continental Airlines jet hit by powerful crosswinds at Denver International Airport in December 2008 while attempting to take off ran off the runway, rumbled over frozen fields and crashed into a ditch, where the plane broke apart and burst into flames. No one was killed, but there were many injuries.

Airlines are concerned that the new training requirements will increase their costs. The FAA estimated the cost to the industry of the new rule at $274.1 million to $353.7 million.

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP—Joan—Lowy

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