- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009


BUFFALO, N.Y. — A federal aviation official on Sunday said the plane that crashed Thursday night into a house near Buffalo, killing 50 people, was on autopilot when it went down, a possible violation of airline policy in icy weather.

Steve Chealander of the National Transportation Safety Board said Colgan Air recommends pilots fly manually in icy conditions. Pilots are required to do so in severe ice.

Pilots of the doomed plane discussed “significant” ice buildup on their wings and windshield just before the crash.

Colgan Air operates a fleet of 51 regional turboprops, including Continental Connection, United Express and US Airways Express.

Mr. Chealander says the preliminary investigation indicates the autopilot was still on when the plane crashed.

Authorities also said Sunday that the remains of 15 people have been recovered from the wreckage as crews raced to finish their work before a snowstorm arrives later in the week.

Workers were back at the site at dawn Sunday, trying to retrieve remains of the 49 people aboard when the aircraft crashed into a home in suburban Buffalo. The homeowner also was killed.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said recovery efforts intensified after the arrival of additional federal workers. A forecast of snow for Wednesday added to the urgency.

A storm could hamper recovery efforts, but “the investigation will continue snow, rain or shine,” said David Bissonette, the town’s emergency coordinator.

Once all the remains are recovered, the focus will turn to removing wreckage of the 74-seat aircraft from the residential neighborhood where it went down.

About 150 people are working at the site six miles from the Buffalo airport. The blue tail of the 90-foot plane still sticks out from a mound of black ash and rubble.

The plane, flying through light snow and mist, crashed belly-first into the house, with the aircraft’s nose pointed away from the airport.

Investigators did not offer an explanation, but the orientation raised the possibility that the pilot was fighting an icy airplane. Air safety guidelines says a pilot can try a 180-degree turn to rid a plane of ice.

Other possible explanations are that the aircraft was spinning or flipped upon impact.

According to flight data, the plane’s safety systems warned the pilot that the aircraft was perilously close to losing lift and plummeting from the sky.

Recovery crews could need as much as four days to remove the remains from the site. Mr. Chealander described the efforts as an “excavation.”

“Keep in mind, there’s an airplane that fell on top of a house, and they’re now intermingled,” he said.

Moments before the crash, a “stick shaker” and “stick pusher” mechanism activated to warn the pilot that the plane was about to lose aerodynamic lift, a condition called a stall. When the “stick pusher” engaged, it would have pointed the nose of the plane toward the ground to try to increase lift.

Mr. Chealander said indicator lights showed that deicing equipment on the tail, wings and propeller appeared to be working and that investigators who examined both engines said it appears they were working normally at the time of the crash.

Experts were analyzing data from the black boxes, including statements by crew members about a buildup of ice on the wings and windshield, Mr. Chealander said.

The NTSB planned to use data on the black boxes to determine whether the plane was in a flat spin before it crashed. Flight data indicated “severe” pitching and rolling before impact.

Other aircraft in the area Thursday night told air traffic controllers they also experienced icing around the time the plane went down.

Icing is one of several elements being examined by investigators, Mr. Chealander said, adding that a full report will probably take a year.

DNA and dental records will be used to identify the remains, he said.

One aspect of the investigation will focus on the crew and their training and whether they had enough time to rest between flights. Other investigators will focus on the weather and the mechanics of the plane.

Associated Press writers William Kates, Ramit Plushnick-Masti, Carolyn Thompson and John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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