Crashed commuter plane had good record

February 13, 2009 6:00:10 PM PST
Officials trying to piece together what caused a plane to crash into a home near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people, said Friday the aircraft was new and had a clean safety record, but the crew noticed ice buildup on the wings and windshield before the accident. The twin turboprop aircraft - Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J. - was coming in for a landing when it crashed Thursday night about five miles short of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The flight was operated by Colgan Air Inc., based in Manassas, Va. Colgan is owned by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.

National Transportation Safety Board member Steve Chealander, in a late afternoon press briefing, said the crew noticed significant ice buildup on the wings and windshield as they approached Buffalo. He also said the plane began to pitch and roll after positioning its flaps for a landing about a minute before the crash. But Chealander would not speculate on the cause of the crash.

The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, registered last April, was delayed almost two hours before departing Newark, N.J.

But Philip H. Trenary, who heads Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and operator Colgan Air, said at a news conference Friday that he didn't know why there was a delay.

Trenary said the plane was a "next-generation turbo prop, very modern."

"It's an aircraft that's had flawless service," he said. "So no, there have been no indications of problems with the aircraft."

Bombardier spokesman Marc Duchesne said the plane was put into service very recently and is only a few months old.

Though skies were foggy and winds were 17 mph, there was no indication of anything out of the ordinary and no mayday call from the pilot, according to a recording of air traffic control radio messages captured by the Web site

William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said the near vertical drop of the plane suggests a sudden loss of control. One witness said the plane "basically dove" onto house.

Voss said possible causes include icing or a mechanical failure, such as wing flaps deploying out of synch to different positions or the two engines putting out uneven thrust. Similarly, Don Maciejewski, a former military pilot and aviation attorney, said the sharp drop coupled with a witness who reported hearing a change in engine noise could indicate engine failure or ice buildup on the tail.

"There are a limited number of things that can cause an aircraft to lose control," Voss said.

Wind gusts hit 65 mph on Thursday and the Federal Aviation Administration said flights were delayed by nearly four hours at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Trenary also would not speculate on if weather played a role in the crash, which killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground.

The Q400 is popular for intermediate flights, especially after recent spikes in aviation fuel prices.

The Q400 has not been involved in any fatal crashes in the United States, though it has had problems with its landing gear.

Scandinavian Airlines grounded its 27 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft in 2007 after problems with landing gear caused three crash landings in seven weeks in Europe. No one was seriously hurt in those accidents.

Voss said it's "extremely unlikely" landing gear played a role in the crash five miles from the airport.

Bombardier said it has dispatched a product safety and technical team to the site to assist the National Transportation Safety Board with their investigation.


Continental Airlines information on Flight 3407

Relatives and friends of those traveling on Flight 3407 who want to give or receive information about those on board may contact Continental at 800.621.3263.