Colgan Air Defends Training of Flight 3407 Pilot

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In a letter to three Buffalo-area members of Congress, Pinnacle Airlines Corp., the company that owns the regional airline Colgan Air, steadfastly denied withholding information from the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) regarding the 2009 crash of Continental Flight 3407.

The emails raised questions about the abilities of Marvin Renslow, the captain of 3407, six months before the fatal flight.

Regarding a problem Renslow had with a test flight, Pinnacle Vice President and COO John Spanjers wrote: “The NTSB was specifically aware of Captain Renslow’s additional checking event, and his full training record was part of the NTSB evidence.”

The emails [PDF], written by higher-ups at the airline, were never handed over to investigators. But Pinnacle said the information they contained was made available to the NTSB.

In addition, Pinnacle maintained that Renslow was fully competent to fly a Bombardier Dash-8 Q400, the type of plane that crashed in Buffalo, despite a series of August 2008 emails from Colgan supervisors that seem to question Renslow’s abilities.

In his letter, Spanjers said that the emails were regarding Capt. Renslow’s request to attend the next round of Q400 training sessions. At the time, he had logged only 2,900 hours of flight time; Colgan requires a pilot to have 3,200 hours before starting Q400 training. According to Colgan’s records, Renslow reached 3,200 hours in October 2008 and completed the FAA-approved training without “deficiencies or problems.” FRONTLINE obtained a copy of Spanjers letter, which was first reported in the Buffalo News.

“Captain Renslow was fully qualified and certified to be pilot-in-command of Flight 3407,” Spanjers concluded.

In 2010, the NTSB ruled that the cause of the Buffalo crash was pilot error.

Spanjers’ letter was a response to a request from Democratic Reps. Brian Higgins, Kathy Hochul and Louise Slaughter for more information about why the NTSB never received the 2008 emails in question.

In another letter, sent last Saturday, six New York lawmakers, including Reps. Higgins, Hochul and Slaughter, urged the Justice Department to consider “an investigation into whether Colgan’s actions constituted the intentional withholding of information sought by a federal agency and whether such actions violated federal law.

The NTSB has said they’ll fully cooperate with the Justice Department if the feds decide to investigation the emails. But Rep. Louise Slaughter told FRONTLINE that this whole debacle is just another frustrating example of the lack of power the NTSB has to oversee the airline industry:

Over the years, I’ve come to respect the work of the NTSB. I didn’t learn until the Colgan crash that they could only make suggestion on safety issues to the FAA. FAA doesn’t have to accept any of these suggestions.

In the case of the Colgan crash, the Congress passed legislation dealing with pilot fatigue, inability to fly in ice, and pilots who had not been properly trained on the equipment on that plane. None of these regulations have been implemented.

Colgan withheld emails from NTSB that were discovered in a lawsuit but I question what else don’t we know? We need to strengthen NTSB or get rid of it. The transportation investigation area of the U.S. government needs to have the power to really keep us safe.

Update [Nov. 10, 2012]: The NTSB today asked Pinnacle for any information they might still have about Renslow and Flight 3407′s co-pilot Rebecca Shaw. While NTSB chair Deborah A.P. Hersman said she is “disappointed” the company didn’t hand over the emails, she also stated that “the previously undisclosed documents do not appear to give reason for reconsideration of the NTSB’s final report and probable cause determination.”

Photo: A Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 is shown on it's acceptance flight in Toronto. A commuter aircraft similar to the one shown -- Continental Connection Flight 3407 -- crashed into a Buffalo-area home in February 2009. (AP/THE CANADIAN PRESS -- Andrew H. Cline)
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