US plane was on autopilot in icy crash that killed 50

Other News Materials 16 February 2009 04:49 (UTC +04:00)

Amidst recovery efforts for the remains of 50 victims of an icy New York airplane crash, investigators Sunday said the aircraft was on autopilot, a violation of suggested guidelines when icing on the wings is a danger but in keeping with legal requirements, dpa reported.

Steve Chealander, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB,) described in broadcast remarks the sickening pitch and roll of Continental Express flight 3407 in its last 26 seconds before it crashed into a house outside Buffalo, New York, on Thursday night, killing all 48 passengers and crew and one person in the house.

The information was gleaned from the flight data recorder recovered from the wreckage.

But Chealander added that it did "not seem like it was as severe icing event," raising questions about whether the informal guidelines would have prevailed on the pilot's decision-making.

The pilot of the 74-seat Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane operated by Colgan Air had taken off from Newark, New Jersey and was headed to Buffalo.

The pilot had turned on the de-icing system 11 minutes after taking off from Newark, and kept it on for the rest of the flight.

Chealander said that the NTSB, after investigating a similar accident in the past, had recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that it require pilots to turn off the auto- pilot system in severe icing conditions.

"It might be best to disengage the autopilot and fly manually so you have the ... feeling for what might be changing" with the ice, Chealander said.

But he said the FAA, which is the only regulatory body that can set safety requirements, "sees things differently" and "believes for some reasons that you may need the autopilot" in icing conditions.

The heavy workload in "high intense weather situations" is the main reason the FAA has more confidence in the auto-pilot system, Chealander said.

The flight manual for the Dash 8-Q400 craft advises that the auto- pilot be disengaged during "severe icing conditions," Chealander said. "What we've seen thus far (has not indicated) it was severe icing."