Weary Colgan Air Pilots Gossip Before Stall (Buffalo, NY, 2009)

Few people know 50 percent of flights in the United States are by regional carriers

The feeder airline pilots were tired. One was also not very well, and they allowed gossiping to encroach on the time they should have been using to prepare the landing.

Colgan Air Flight 3407, February 12, 2009

Though not a major disaster in terms of the number of lives lost, the Colgan Air Continental Airlines Connection Flight 3407 crash described here received much attention because fatal air crashes in the States had become rare. Another reason was that it made the American public realize how many flights seemingly flown by the majors (with their flight numbers and even their livery) are actually operated by regional airlines.

Though the Canadian-built Bombardier C4 turboprop airliner used for Flight 3407 had Continental livery, employees of Colgan Air operated and serviced the flight exclusively. Following the accident, legislators passed laws to make purchasers of airline tickets more able to determine on which airline they are actually flying.
Salaries and working conditions at commuter airlines, as opposed to the majors, are less than generous. The forty-seven-year-old male captain and the twenty-four-year-old female first officer, whose gross salary had been $15,800 during the previous year and was less than that of a bus driver, spent much of the flight discussing the difficulties they had in relation to this. (The cockpit voice recorder also recorded the captain stating that he earned a gross salary of about $60,000.)

The captain lived in Florida, and the first officer in Washington State, both on the other side of the country from their New Jersey operating base. Both had at one time considered having proper crash pads in New Jersey, but for financial reasons neither had one—there was always the option of resting or sleeping in the crew lounge.

The first officer had come in from Seattle early that morning. She had managed to get a reasonable amount of rest in the crew lounge and on the flight from Seattle but was suffering from a cold and had stated in an exchange prior to takeoff that had circumstances been different she would have called in sick.
She said, “I’m ready to be in the hotel room,” to which the captain replied, “I feel bad for you.”

Continuing, she went into detail:
This is one of those times that if I felt like this when I was at home, there’s no way I would have come all the way out here. If I call in sick now, I’ve got to put myself in a hotel until I feel better . . . we’ll see how . . . it feels flying. If the pressure’s just too much . . . I could always call in tomorrow. At least I’m in a hotel on the company’s buck, but we’ll see. I’m pretty tough.

The CVR recorded her sniveling and occasionally yawning during the flight.

The captain himself suffered from a sleep deficit built up over several days and could be heard yawning on the CVR. The rest that he had had that morning in less than ideal conditions in the crew lounge could hardly have made up for that deficit.

The flight was to be a short fifty-three-minute hop across New York State to Buffalo, on the edge of Lake Eerie. Near the border with Canada, Buffalo is the second-largest city in New York State, and consequently they were over built-up areas as the aircraft approached the airport.

The CVR recorded the Newark tower controller clearing the airplane for takeoff at about 21:18:23 EST. The first officer acknowledged the clearance, and the captain said:
All right, cleared for takeoff. It’s mine.

The intended cruise altitude for the flight was sixteen thousand feet mean sea level, and the flight data recorder showed that, during the climb to altitude, propeller and airframe deicing were turned on (pitot static deicing had been turned on prior to takeoff) and the autopilot was engaged.

The turboprop reached its cruising altitude of sixteen thousand feet at about 21:34:44. The cruise part of the flight was routine and uneventful, and the only thing remarkable about it was the rapport between the two pilots, which resulted in them indulging in almost continuous nonessential personal conversation. Although not in conflict with the sterile cockpit rule, which prohibits nonessential conversations within the cockpit during critical phases of flight, as they were above ten thousand feet it did mean that certain tasks, such as checklists, were delayed until the very end of the flight, when they would be busy.

At about 21:53:40 the first officer briefed the captain on the airspeeds for landing, with the flaps at fifteen degrees (Flaps 15), giving 118 knots as the reference landing speed (VREF), and 114 knots as the go-around speed (VGA). The captain acknowledged this information.