Buffalo in winter is a city that Al Gore should love. It's cold, dark and adrift in snow. Ice is the default setting. When fresh snow arrives even the television newscasters restrain the hysteria that's the mark of the television news trade. Al's global warming rants that the end is near fall on frozen ears in Buffalo.
But pilots pay close attention to winter storm warnings. Ice aloft strikes terror in the hearts of pilots because it can appear suddenly and with scant warning distort the leading edge of the plane's wings, adding irregular shape and weight. When this happens the wings can no longer provide lift. The plane assumes the characteristics of a rock.
This is probably what happened last week to Continental Airlines Flight 3407 as it approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport. For 59 minutes and 34 seconds the flight from Newark, N.J., was smooth and uneventful - exactly what an airline flight is supposed to be - and then the plane, a Canadian-built Bombardier Dash 8 began a roller-coaster descent that ended when the plane cratered like a flat rock into a house at 115 mph. Everybody aboard, 49 passengers and crew, died in a fireball that made death mercifully instantaneous. The owner of the house died, too.
The investigation will eventually resolve the questions, or most of them, but it already has set off remarkably harsh speculation that sets the National Transportation Safety Board against the Federal Aviation Administration.
One former federal safety official told the Buffalo News that the accident was "foreseeable and likely preventable" but for lax oversight by the FAA. The Buffalo crash follows two other turboprop crashes over the span of 15 years that were determined to have been caused by uncontrolled icing on the wings. In the first, an American Eagle flight, a French-built ATR 72, crashed into an Indiana soybean field, killing 68; in the second, a Comair Brazilian-built Embraer-120, nose-dived into the ground 18 miles short of the Detroit airport.
The latest crash is likely to attract the attention of Congress. The airlines are in bad odor with the public, anyway, easy pickings for congressional committee chairmen looking for headlines and face time on the evening news. Nothing gets a congressman's attention faster than something that applies to him (or her). The safety board investigates and makes recommendations to correct safety shortcomings; the FAA passes these suggestions on, sometimes as suggestions and sometimes as instructions. Congress, of course, gets the last word.
The Bombardier Dash 8 is regarded as safe, solid and reliable; nearly 900 of them are operated by airlines around the world. But like all turboprops, the Dash 400 is particularly susceptible to icing aloft. Turboprops fly at a slower speed than jetliners and remain longer at altitudes where winter temperatures fall far below zero, and icing is likeliest to occur.
The pilot of Flight 3407 told air traffic controllers shortly before the crash that the accumulation of ice on his windshield and on the leading edge of the wings was "significant." Further, most turboprops employ a de-icing technology developed in the 1930s, a system of pneumatic boots along the leading edge of the wing which contract and expand, like the flexing of a fist, to break apart the accumulation of ice. The pneumatic boots work well, most of the time, but are not nearly as effective as the heated wings of the jetliners.
Jim Hall, a former director of the safety board who is not a party to the investigation of the crash of Flight 3407, says, "The FAA should ground all aircraft of this type until [the safety board] investigation is complete and it is clear that they can be operated safely." Laura Brown, a spokesman for the FAA, said her agency disagrees. "I don't think we have any information that would cause us to ground aircraft."
Steven Chealander, a member of the safety board who is in Buffalo directing the investigation, displayed a list of "most wanted" improvements at a press conference. One of the recommendations is that turboprop pilots activate the pneumatic boots sooner rather than later when flying through icing conditions. "They're recommendations that we feel are being moved [on] too slowly, or for other reasons, and we feel need added emphasis."
Comair got rid of turboprops entirely after the Detroit crash, and American Eagle assigned its turboprops to winter service in the Caribbean. The investigation of the Continental crash won't be completed for a year. The thrill of flight comes with the occasional chill.