Airplane that crashed near Buffalo, New York 'was on autopilot'

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Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bombarder Q400 Continental Connection, similar to the airplane involved in the accident

Investigators have stated that Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed in icy weather near Buffalo, New York on February 12, was on autopilot when it went down, and that the pilot flying the aircraft might have violated the airline's policy and federal safety recommendations.

The plane involved in the incident was a Bombardier Dash 8, which crashed into a home located at 6038 Long Street in Clarence Center, a suburb of Buffalo. It went down at approximately 10:17 p.m. EST (03:20 UTC), February 12. 44 passengers, an off-duty pilot, and four crew members died in the accident, as well as one person on the ground.

When the plane crashed, it was carrying over 2.5 tonnes (5,000 pounds) of fuel. Amid rain and sleet, the aircraft exploded into a huge orange fireball, sparking a large fire which emergency crews had to contain. Twelve houses near the crash site were evacuated.

Steve Chealander, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said that the company which operated the flight suggests the pilot to fly manually when conditions are icy, saying that "you may be able in a manual mode to sense something sooner than the autopilot can sense it."

"If the autopilot is left on while the ice is building up, the pilot may suddenly be confronted with a very difficult situation," said William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, speaking to the Toronto Star. "Ice actually changes the shape of the wing. If you don't keep the wings clean you could find yourself in a situation where [...] suddenly the aircraft decides to quit flying."

The airplane's data recorders suggest that there was a significant accumulation of ice on the aircraft's wings and windshield before it crashed. Shortly before the crash, according to the flight voice recorder, the pilots were talking about the poor weather and ask the traffic controller for permission to descend. The airplane's de-icing system had been turned on before the crew had discussed the ice. Recordings of communications seemed to be normal until soon before impact, and the flight crew did not notify air traffic control of any problems.

Investigations have suggested that the aircraft was headed away from its destination airport when it went down.


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* "Fatal US plane 'was on autopilot'" — BBC News Online, February 15, 2009

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