I was online late at night when all my little mail and message icons started blinking. Nothing in aviation travels as fast as bad news. A Dash-8 operating under the call sign Colgan 3407 for Continental Airlines ceased communications with the Buffalo, NY approach controller and was subsequently found to have crashed into homes on the ground about five miles short of the runway. News stations are currently reporting 49 fatalities: all 45 passengers and four crew members, plus one person on the ground.
There is no way of knowing what happened at this point and I'm not going to speculate. You can see why it's not a good idea to speculate if you watch what came out on the news and talk websites as people who didn't know what as going on rushed to get news out. The reports ranged from the airplane being a Saab 340 to a "large jetliner," and the persons on board from "a crew of three" up to "two hundred passengers." I've heard that the pilots reported mechanical problems and that the pilots reported icing, but none of that shows up in the conversation between the accident aircraft and the approach controllers.
See, Buffalo approach is available on live streaming ATC, so audio is available now for the radio traffic before and after the accident. In Canada it is illegal to report what is heard on the radio, but I'm using an American blog service to report American ATC transmissions, so I think I'm in the clear. Here's what I hear between the Approach controller and the Pilot. There is a Delta pilot in the conversation, too. (I've left everyone else out).
P: buffalo approach colgan thirty four zero seven twelve for eleven thousand with romeo
A: colgan forty four zero seven buffalo approach good evening buffalo altimeter's two niner eight zero plan an ils approach runway two three
P: two niner eight zero and ils two three colgan thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven, proceed direct TRAVA
A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain six thousand
P: zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain five thousand
P: five thousand thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain four thousand
A: colgan thirty four seven descend and maintain two thousand three hundred
P: ?zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven turn left heading three three zero
P: left heading three three zero colgan thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven turn left heading three one zero
P: left heading three one zero colgan thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven three miles from KLUMP turn left heading two six zero maintain two thousand three hundred until established localizer cleared ils approach runway two three
P: left two sixty two thousand three hundred until established and cleared ils two three colgan thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four zero seven contact tower one two zero point five have a good night
P: thirty four zero seven
A: colgan thirty four seven approach
A: delta nineteen ninety eight just going to take you through the localizer for sequencing
D: delta nineteen ninety eight thanks
A: colgan thirty four zero seven, buffalo
A: colgan thirty four seven, approach
A: Delta nineteen ninety eight look off your right side about five miles for a dash eight should be twenty three hundred do you see anything there
D: negative delta nineteen ninety eight we're just in the bottoms and nothing on the TCAS
A: colgan thirty four zero seven, buffalo
This transcription stuff is harder than it looks. I don't know why I can't hear the pilot's responses in each case. Perhaps some are blocked, or it's an artifact of receiver position, or of the recording technology.
I'm pretty sure the controller does call the flight by the wrong callsign initially. That's so normal. Almost every callsign gets bungled by someone every flight. The controller gets it right on subsequent calls so either it was just a slip of the tongue or he matched it up with the strip right afterward. Communications are perfectly normal until ATC tells the pilot to switch to tower. she acknowledges the call, but presumably never calls tower, as approach calls back, looking for her.
I suspect the Delta 1998 told to fly through the localizer would have been following her, and was broken off while they figured out what happened. They ask him if he can see the Dash-8 and he can't. Later the controller asks "Do you have VFR conditions there?" but the pilot is then inside clouds.
Another ATC voice comes on calling the missing flight again, with the words "How do you hear?" the words you usually hear right before someone gets chewed out for not paying attention.
ATC sends the Delta to a hold, that is to wait, and makes a broadcast "Ok for all aircraft this frequency we did have a Dash-8 over the marker that, that didn't make the airport. It appears to be about five miles away from the airport. For Delta 1998 I'm going to bring you in sir on the approach. If you could just give me a PIREP when you get to twenty three hundred and if you have any problem with the localizer or anything let me know however we're showing it all in the green here."
They don't know what went wrong, so they're being careful in case there is some problem with the localizer, the part of the instrument landing system that provides lateral guidance. Another pilot intended to do a practice autoland and was told to not do that. The controller wants the pilot not the automation landing the plane.
Another pilot asks ATC if they know about the situation on the ground. Probably he has seen the fire. It is normal to report sights like to ATC. I've reported an upside-down boat, and a forest fire, for example. ATC asks other aircraft in the area for icing reports and some is reported. One departing pilot asks for an unrestricted climb to get through the ice.
After a while a pilot asks "Did you find Colgan?"
The controller responds "Unfortunately he went down over the marker."
It's pretty normal for an airplane to be referred to as "he" even though the voice coming from it is female. Some people are assuming that the woman on the radio was the first officer, but I've seen women as young as she sounds with four stripes on their shoulders at regional hubs, so that may or may not be a valid assumption. It has dawned on the reporter that the lack of stress in the pilot's voice does not mean that the pilots have no concerns, because he's heard how calm Captain Sullenberger sounded on that tape. But crew are required to report abnormalities with the airplane to ATC, and these folks don't.
And I only noticed today's date after publishing. It is the zulu date of the crash.
Update: The names of the crew have been released: Capt. Marvin Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw, so it was the F/O on the radio. Plus there was a jumpseater on board, bringing the death toll to an even fifty.