Icing or pilot error?

Last April, the NTSB released the data from Flight 3407’s FDR.  I blogged about that here.  Despite wide spread speculation that icing brought down the aircraft, it looked to me like pilot error — not weather —  was to blame.

Then, in May, the NTSB released an animation derived from the aircraft’s flight data recorder, its cockpit voice recorder, and ATC transcripts.  I blogged about that here.  The animation, like the raw data from the FDR, made a strong case for pilot error.  From the animation, it appeared to me that an inattentive pilot allowed the aircraft to get slower and slower, until it became dangerously close to the speed at which the aircraft would stop flying altogether and simply fall from the sky.  Then, when the critical moment came, the pilot pulled back on the control yoke instead of pushing it forward, thereby inducing an aerodynamic stall.

The NTSB made public its official probable cause finding at a hearing yesterday.  No surprises to anyone who has studied the data.  According to an article in today’s Buffalo News, the NTSB summed it up as follows:

The plane got so slow that the “stick shaker” — a device that helps to prevent stalls — activated. But Renslow [the pilot] mistakenly pulled back on the plane’s controls at that point, which is exactly the opposite of what he should have done.

In total, Renslow pulled back on the controls three times in response to the stick shaker and “stick pusher,” forcing the nose upward. That caused and then exacerbated the stall.

It’s almost unimaginable that a professional pilot would make the series of mistakes that the pilot did in this case.  Even a new student pilot would know better.  But that’s what he did.

The NTSB played its animation for those who attended the hearing.  The animation shows the pilot’s errors mount.  The activation of the “stick shaker” is depicted 2 minutes and 8 seconds into the animation. The shaking control yoke was a final warning to the pilot that he must immediately push the yoke forward.  But instead of pushing forward, the pilot pulled back. Three times.  After the third time, the aircraft stalled and crashed.

There were countless points at which this aircraft could have been saved but, inexplicably, the pilot failed to take appropriate action.