Spring has well and truly sprung in Canada and I've been off camping, paying no attention at all to my blog account mail. I peeked at it recently and it's full of unread mail from you guys and news alerts on the Colgan accident investigation. (I originally blogged about the Colgan 3407 crashthe night it happened).
The cockpit voice recorder transcript was released last week, and a lot of information about the pilots' lifestyle was released at the hearing. If you're reading about a fatal airplane crash, the only thing you can read that can really be said to be a relief is that the crash was misreported, and everyone is alright. That's obviously not the case here. It's still a little bit of a relief to find out some of what happened, because it collapses the network of all the possible bad things that could happened into the few that actually did.
The first thing that hits me reading this transcript is the stunning inexperience of the crew in comparison with Canadian aviation. The captain says he was hired with 625 hours. That would have been as first officer, but you'd be lucky to get a job on a Navajo or a King Air in Canada with that time. The first officer had sixteen hundred hours at the time of the accident, but much of that was as a flight instructor in Phoenix. There she would rarely have seen a cloud, nor below freezing temperatures. In her own words, in the recording made not quite five minutes before she died ...
"I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced. I've never seen any-- I've never experienced any of that. I don't want to experience that and make those kind of calls. You know I'd have freaked out. I'd have like seen this much ice and thought oh my gosh we were going to crash."
So she has no basis beyond company training on which to judge the severity of icing. She's never flown northern routes in the spring to places where the most distinctive landmarks are the crashed remains of airplanes that didn't make it. She is depending on the captains she is flying her now to teach her how to make those judgements. And that's part of being a first officer. She's smart enough to know that, too. When talking about the people hired at the same time as her, she notes that many are agitating for an upgrade but that she "really wouldn't mind going through a winter in the northeast before I have to upgrade to captain."
It sounds as if upgrades happen pretty quickly there, and as if not everyone thinks of their period of time as a first officer as an apprenticeship. I originally looked at the fact that Rebecca Shaw had been with the company through a winter and assumed that meant she had experienced icing conditions in that airplane. But I wasn't thinking about the short routes that Colgan uses the Dash-8 on, and that with a southern base, it's possible to go through a US winter without meeting ice.
The captain you would think had more experience, but he accepted the autopilot setting "I've got you in pitch hold," in icing conditions. Regardless of your experience, one of the things that icing training teaches you so you don't have to find out for yourself is that an ice accumulation that looks exactly like the one the airplane handled fine last week may result in completely different handling today. Very subtle changes can have a huge affect on aircraft stbility and handling. Hand flying allows you to notice how the ice is affecting you, if the airplane is needing more trim or more power to hold the same parameters. You don't want an airplane on pitch hold, holding its own nose up without you realizing what it's having to do to achieve that. In ice, that can lead to a stall. And this airplane stalled fifteen seconds after a cheerfully unconcerned radio exchange with air traffic control.
Not only are they talking to ATC, but they are talking to each other. We're getting a complete career analysis from both pilots right through the flight, interspersed with their clearances and checklists. A reader asked me if he thought that women,stereotypically more chatty, were more likely to disregard the sterile cockpit than men. Anyone who reads my blog can tell that I have a lot of verbiage to dispense. But I know what a sterile cockpit is and what it is for and I STFU when required to. I want to be a professional pilot and it's about more than having your hat on straight. Act like one, sound like one. I don't think this is a male-female issue. The captain is keeping up his end of the conversation. It's company culture. The FO says she's been flying with a lot of captains, some of whom can't finesse the rudder, but none of whom have apparently instructed her or demonstrated to her that one shuts up about ones career below ten thousand feet. It's not a difficult culture to instill because how many times would an FO have to have a a captain point at the altimeter or say, "sterile cockpit please" before she never opens her mouth for non-essential communication below ten thousand?
Other evidence from the hearing shows that pilots paid far too little to live at their bases were living far from their bases were commuting across the country and then sleeping on crew room couches before their duty periods. Ever flown a redeye and then had a nap on a couch in a room where people were coming in and out, having discussions and watching TV? Ready to handle any emergency right? And ready to handle three back to back 16-hour shifts? Yeah, right.
I commute across the continent that, but only once a month, and the company ensures I've had eight hours in a hotel bed before I'm expected to work. Three back-to-back 16 hour duty days is criminal. I'll work three fourteens and I'm beat. There's no way I'd be safe with another two hours on each of those days. I worked back-to-back sixteens like that back when I was seventeen years old. After a few days of that routine, I slept right through my alarm and was late for work. But I didn't get in trouble. The doughnut shop *manager* got in trouble for scheduling me that way. Yes, I was working in a doughnut shop, not flying an airplane. It seems that Canadian doughnuts and coffee are deemed by company upper management to deserve more alert supervision than the controls of a Colgan commuter airline. The FO also seems to have had a cold--she sneezes more than once during the flight and the captain is inquiring about her ability to clear her ears as they descend, even planning the descent profile for her comfort.
A manager at Colgan suggested random audits of the CVR for compliance with sterile cockpit procedures. That's not where professional flying comes from. Train and examine people to the standards you expect. Spot checks? What is this, summer camp? If you have to do spot checks of basic safety proedures, you're hiring the wrong people or training them incorrectly.