Aftermath on Buffalo / Colgan crash

By James Fallows

About the public hearings on the terrible crash in Buffalo three months ago, in which 50 people died:

- Authoritative wrapup of the situation here by Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, who has had well-informed stories on this topic from the beginning.

- This more-complete information supports the hypothesis Pasztor raised early on, as discussed previously here, that the cause of the crash was  a basic and fatal failure of airmanship. That is, at a moment when saving the airplane would have required pushing the plane's nose down -- to regain airspeed and avert an aerodynamic stall -- the pilot apparently fought the autopilot, which was trying to push the nose down, and succeeded in pulling the nose up. This further reduced airspeed and, apparently, put the plane into a full stall, at which point it stopped flying and fell to the ground. If you're not 100% confident on the difference between aerodynamic "stalls" and normal stalls, see the note after the jump.*

- The complete transcript of over-the-airwaves transmissions and in-cockpit chatter, available in PDF from the WSJ site here, has the intrinsic horrific fascination of any document of this sort. You know you are observing the routine preoccupations and chit-chat of people who don't realize, as you do, that they are in their final moments of life. I don't share the total astonishment of some commentary about how much of the en route talk is "unprofessional" -- about career plans and family problems and the rest. Given how things turned out, any banter whatsoever now looks very bad. But none of it would have mattered save for the one horrible error in judgment and reaction. Had the pilot pushed forward on the stick rather than pulled back, in all likelihood it would have been another normal flight -- albeit in rough winter conditions -- and he and everyone else would now be going about their regular lives.
  
- Of course the big question is how much the loosey-goosey atmosphere in the cockpit had to do with that awful error. Miles O'Brien, a pilot and ex-correspondent for CNN, has his thoughts on the subject here.

- This is NOT crash related, but for a way to see what it is like to descend into a cloud bank on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing, check out this YouTube video taken from inside the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22 in the last three minutes of its approach to runway 16R at Van Nuys airport. (The Cirrus is a four-seat single-engine plane of the type that, as it happens, Miles O'Brien flies and that I used to own and fly before coming to China.) The shot does not concentrate on the instrument panel during the descent, which is what the pilot is obsessively scanning when he can't see anything outside the window. Also,the propeller appears to "stop" or move jerkily at times, just because of a strobe effect with the camera. But the beginning and end of the clip conveys something most passengers never see: how it looks to enter the clouds, and then finally to see the runway -- in this case, underneath quite a low cloud ceiling. Really, watch this and you'll have an idea of the mantra drummed into your head a million times in instrument-flight training: that you've got to watch the instruments and trust the instruments, because there is no other guide to where you're headed.

(UPDATE: YouTube appears to be getting Firewalled again in China, as happens from time to time. I posted this link while using a VPN, as I do most of the time to get around the firewall. But after hearing complaints from others, I turned the VPN off and couldn't reach YouTube from Beijing. Oh well.)
 
See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/05/aftermath-on-buffalo-colgan-crash/17534/

- Speaking of runway 16R at Van Nuys Airport, here is the site for a movie called One Six Right, about that very runway and the activity that surrounds it. It's for sale on DVD rather than free download, but it is visually very rich, eye-opening, and fascinating to watch. It also talks about all the routine safety measures that are normally built into aviation, and which in this Buffalo case didn't prevent a huge tragedy.

___

* Stalls: There really should be a different word for this aerodynamic phenomenon, because people assume it's like an engine stall -- which it isn't. Fundamentally, an airplane stalls when it flies too slowly to stay in the air. That's not the technical definition, which has to do with the "angle of attack" of the wings, but it's close enough. In most cases that is because the pilot is pulling the nose up too high into the air, and in most cases the remedy is to push the nose down. (There are other options in some cases, like easing off from a too-steep turn.) Pushing the nose down makes the plane go faster,  which can take it back above its dangerous "stalling speed." The easiest way to think of this is like riding a bicycle. When a bike goes too slowly, it can't stay upright. Heading uphill, which is the equivalent of pulling the nose up, slows the bike down and increases the risk it will topple over. Heading downhill -- pushing the nose down -- does the reverse.

There is a special circumstance in which pulling the nose back could have been the right option. This would be if the airplane had suffered a "tailplane stall," as discussed here. But there is no evidence that this was the case -- and anyway the flight crew never discussed that possibility, or anything about their declining airspeed, before the pilot made his fatal mistake.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/05/aftermath-on-buffalo-colgan-crash/17534/