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‘Redeye’ Shouldn’t Mean The Pilot

Colgan Air Q400

Colgan Air Q400

An article in The Australian today looks at the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) crash in Buffalo New York in February.

Over three days the National Transportation Safety Board heard testimony that raised grave questions about the experience and ability of the pilots in charge of commuter aircraft. At the same time, the hearings peered deep into the airline culture behind the tragedy, finding extraordinarily low wages, bizarre work practices and a stunning management indifference to pilot fatigue.

I think this is what is termed the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

On Tuesday the hearings were told that Renslow had failed flight checks in the aircraft five times before he passed, and that he was unfamiliar with emergency procedures to prevent the aircraft from stalling.

It also emerged that Renslow was one of 29 Colgan pilots who commuted more than 1600km to work. Paid just $US55,000 ($72,500), he couldn’t afford to live in New York, so he flew in from Tampa, Florida. On the day of the crash he arrived at Colgan’s Newark offices at 3.15am.

Renslow’s co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, was even worse off. Her salary was a paltry $US25,000 and she lived with her parents in Seattle on the other side of the country. The hearings heard she once had a second job in a cafe to help make ends meet.

Testimony by Colgan officials on Wednesday revealed the company did not pay cost-of-living adjustments so pilots could live in New York. But they did pay such adjustments to managers.

Asked if Colgan expected Shaw to live in the New York area, vice-president Mary Finnigan said: “Pilots are told what the pay scales are. Our pay scales are within the industry standard.”

On the day before the crash, Shaw left Seattle on an overnight FedEx flight and arrived in Newark at 6.30am after changing planes in Memphis, Tennessee. She then sent text messages throughout the day, evidence that she wasn’t sleeping.

Renslow was seen sleeping in the crew lounge, which is prohibited by the airline.

Asked how the company monitored the fitness and alertness of pilots who commuted such long distances to work, Colgan flight operations chief Harry Mitchell said: “We expect professional pilots should show up fresh and ready to fly an aircraft.”

So major failures in oversight by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Continental Airlines (the parent brand). Colgan Air pilots weren’t unionised so had little support evidenced by management getting cost of living increases but not pilots.

Pilot salaries in the US have been leading the general trend downwards and the last pilot shortage saw some low-time upgrades like Captain Renslow who was in command of a 74 seat aircraft with only 109 hours on type and very little experience in that part of the country. ‘Industry standard’ does not necessarily safety make and hopefully this accident and a few others recently will allow for some navel-gazing for the better rather than the usual head in the sand.

The NTSB animation of the final moments of Colgan Air 3407 is available on YouTube.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 15/05/2013 20:49

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