WASHINGTON – In the minutes before their commuter plane gyrated out of control near Buffalo, N.Y., the pilots of a Continental Connection flight joked and talked about work conditions – distractions that were forbidden under federal law.
The cockpit recording released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board offers some of the first clues that could help explain why the pilots allowed the plane to get too slow and then apparently tugged the plane into a sudden, fatal climb.
It shows that the pilots were perhaps inattentive during a critical phase of the Feb. 12 flight as they prepared to land. Other evidence released by the safety board suggests they may also have suffered from lack of sleep and poor training.
Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, urged co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, who had complained that she was not feeling well, to pop her ears seven minutes before the crash. Federal aviation regulations forbid any non-work related conversation during an approach to landing.
Neither pilot realized that they had reduced the power to a dangerously low setting, according to the recording and other data released by the safety board.
What happened next doomed the flight. The plane’s “stick shaker” – a device that warns pilots when a plane gets too slow – activated, violently vibrating the control column.
Instead of adding power and lowering the plane’s nose as pilots are taught, Renslow pulled the plane into a climb that slowed it further.
As Renslow struggled with the controls, Shaw tried to help by resetting flaps on the plane’s wings and retracting the landing gear.
By this time, the plane’s wings were no longer keeping the plane aloft and it was rolling violently and plunging toward the ground.
“We’re down,” Renslow said in the final seconds before the recording ended. “We’re . . .”
The final sound on the recording was a scream by Shaw, the board reported.