Crew noticed ice buildup on wings
Descending through a snowy mist toward Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the crew of a Continental commuter flight noticed a significant ice buildup on the windshield and wings of the plane, despite having turned on the craft’s de-icer.
Then, just after the pilot put the wing flaps down in preparation for landing Thursday night, the plane lurched into “a series of severe pitch and roll” movements and plunged to the ground, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Steve Chealander said Friday at a nationally televised briefing.
The 74-seat Bombardier Q400 aircraft, a turboprop also known as a Dash 8, landed on a pitched-roofed home in the quiet Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Clarence Center, killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground. On board the flight from Newark, N.J., were 45 passengers, including the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, the widow of a 9/11 victim and two members of a prominent jazz band. The flight had a crew of four.
Federal authorities said it was premature to speculate on the cause of the crash. “We’re not ruling anything in or anything out at this point,” Chealander said.
But his remarks made it clear that the crash investigation would focus on whether Continental Connection Flight 3407 was brought down by the destabilizing effects of ice on the wings.
Remarkably, destruction from the crash was limited almost entirely to the modest parcel where the plane came down, obliterating the home, which was instantly engulfed in a ball of fire, but leaving surrounding houses in the rolling, wooded area about six miles northeast of the airport virtually untouched. Also astonishing: Two of three people in the destroyed house escaped with relatively minor injuries.
Karen Wielinski told Buffalo radio station WBEN-AM that she was in the family room and that her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, was in an upstairs bedroom when the plane “came down in the middle of the house.”
“Planes do go over our house, but this one just sounded really different, louder, and I thought to myself, ‘If that’s a plane, it’s going to hit something,’ ” Wielinski said in a telephone interview. “The next thing I knew, the ceiling was on me.”
Wielinski, 57, said she pushed her way out of the debris and crawled through a hole in the wreckage as fire erupted around her. She said her daughter managed a similar escape. Wielinski said she suffered a fractured collar bone and that her daughter had scratches on her feet.
Her husband, Doug, 61, was in another part of the house. Authorities did not immediately identify him as among the dead.
Wielinski, a secretary for the Clarence school district, choked up when asked how she wanted her husband to be remembered. “He was a good person, loved his family,” she said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has sent about a dozen investigators to the crash site. A representative from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada also arrived in Buffalo, along with technical advisors from Canada-based Bombardier Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney Canada, which built the aircraft’s engines.
The plane was only 8 months old, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Since 2004, aircraft of its type have not been involved in any accident caused by mechanical failure, NTSB records show.
At the NTSB briefing, Chealander described the final minutes of the flight, based on data and conversations preserved on the plane’s two “black box” recorders.
He said the crew discussed the snowy, misty weather, with visibility reduced to three miles. “That’s icy conditions,” Chealander said.
At an altitude of 16,000 feet, crew members commented on how hazy it was and asked to descend to 12,000 feet. They were cleared to descend to 11,000 feet.
The crew discussed the ice buildup on the windshield and the leading edge of the wings, which Chealander said could be “an aerodynamic impediment.” The flight data recorder indicated that the de-icer was turned on, though the NTSB hadn’t yet determined whether it was functioning properly.
One minute before the end of the recording, crew members put down the landing gear; 20 seconds later, they adjusted the flaps in preparation for landing. Within seconds, the plane began to pitch and roll. Immediately before the end of the recording, the crew attempted to raise the landing gear and flaps.
Icing is not unusual for planes flying through inclement weather. Several planes that were behind the Continental flight reported icing but landed safely. “Ice per se is not much of a concern,” said Hans Weber, an aerospace consultant. “It’s really about where and how much.”
Early reports suggested that the plane banked to the right and then continued to turn right almost 180 degrees before disappearing from the radar, Weber said. That could be a sign of stalling, which could result from icing, Weber said, adding, “but that’s just one possible scenario.”
The Bombardier Q400 aircraft series is fitted with electrical de-icing systems, including rubber bladders along a wing’s front edge that expand and break off ice.
Controversy has surrounded these 1920s-era systems since an American Eagle ATR-72 crashed Oct. 31, 1994, near Roselawn, Ind., after flying for a prolonged period in icy conditions. After the accident, which killed 68, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require manufacturers to test aircraft with these systems to determine whether they were susceptible to ice buildup.
The FAA did not follow through, although the NTSB said that reducing the danger from ice was among its most-wanted safety improvements last year, said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the NTSB during the time of the Roselawn accident and now runs a consulting business.
The FAA declined an interview request and said in a statement, “It’s much too early to speculate about the cause of the Buffalo accident.”
Ice-induced stalls have cause three crashes of turboprop aircraft since the 1980s that have killed 134 people.
The Associated Press and Times staff writers DeeDee Correll, Mitchell Landsberg, Jennifer Oldham and Dan Weikel contributed to this report.