Right after the crash of Flight 3407 at Buffalo, investigators focused on the aircraft’s deicing system. The question, as explained by former CNN reporter and pilot Miles O’Brien, was whether ice had accumulated on the plane’s wings faster than the de-icing system could remove it, leading to an aerodynamic “stall,” or loss of lift.
But as the investigation progressed, it began to look as though, just before the pilot lost control of the aircraft, the nose of the plane pitched up — not down as usually happens when ice overwhelms an aircraft. That raised an almost unthinkable possibility: gross pilot error. When an aircraft gets
too slow and is about to stall (that is, quit flying), the pilot is supposed to push forward on the yoke and pitch the nose down, not pull back. If the pilot pulls back, the nose will pitch up at exactly the wrong moment and the plane will stall.
This is basic airmanship. In fact, every student pilot is taught the proper stall recovery technique before he makes his first solo. Could a professional airline captain have caused the crash by pulling back on the yoke instead of pushing forward? Well, not only did the nose pitch up, but the aircraft’s flight data recorder showed that the pilot did, in fact, pull back on the yoke just before losing control of the aircraft.
Now two prominent aviation law firms, representing different families, are taking different tacks. The first firm, the Clifford Law Firm in Chicago, has filed suit on behalf of two families, alleging that the aircraft crashed because it was inadequately equipped to deal with icing.
The second firm, Kreindler & Kreindler, representing 10 of the families of Flight 3407, says that pilot error caused the crash, not icing or any defect in the aircraft’s deicing equipment.
Which is it? A defective de-icing system or pilot error? Commuter turboprops have a history of crashing due to ineffective de-icing systems, and they are most vulnerable when on approach to landing, just as was Flight 3407. I represented the family of the pilot killed in the crash of Comair Commuter Flight 3272 near Monroe Michigan in 1997. All aboard were lost for just that reason – a defectively designed de-icing system that the FAA should never have certified. And some of the similarities between Flight 3407 and Flight 3272 are striking.
But, in this case, it is hard to square the information from the flight data recorder with anything other than pilot error. Is it possible to come up with a scenario where pulling back on the yoke was anything but a very bad piloting mistake? Yes. Pulling back on the yoke, instead of pushing it forward, can be considered an appropriate reaction, for example, when ice overwhelms the tail of the aircraft rather than the wings. But as explained by airline pilot and Salon columnist Patrick Smith, it is unlikely that the pilot was faced with tailplane icing. That leaves pilot error as the most likely cause of the crash.