Pilot's Reaction Among Flight 3407 Crash Causes

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April 16, 2009

Continental Connection Flight 3407 was flying from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York, on Thursday, February 12, 2009. The flight had been normal until approximately 10:17 p.m., when it plummeted over 1,500 feet and crashed into a house in Clarence Center, New York, just five miles short of the Buffalo airport. The flight carried 49 people. Everyone aboard perished in the crash. One person in the house was killed and two others were injured.

Among the passengers on Flight 3407 was 55-year-old Susan Wehle, a beloved and well-known spiritual leader from Amherst, New York. Her passing sent shockwaves throughout her community, with over one thousand people attending her funeral days after the tragic accident. Her sons, Jonah and Jacob Mink, hired Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman to file a wrongful death lawsuit for the loss of their mother.

What Happened?

Flight 3407, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop aircraft, took off from Newark Liberty International Airport the evening of February 12, 2009. As the plane prepared to land, however, something went terribly wrong. As part of its ongoing investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has gathered data indicating a sequence of events, lasting mere moments, that led to the tragic crash.

The NTSB indicates that the aircraft lost its lift because of a separation of the airflow over the wing and ensuing roll two seconds after activation of the stick shaker while the aircraft was slowing through 125 knots while at a flight load of 1.42 Gs. The predicted stall speed at a load factor of 1 G (without ice) would be at about 105 knots.

In almost every instance there is a confluence of factors that results in the cause of airline accidents, and this crash was probably no exception. According to investigators, as Flight 3407 was approaching the Buffalo area, it was flying on autopilot in icing conditions.

Because pilots should know that de-icing boots cannot guarantee the elimination of all dangerous ice from the wings or the tail, they have to fly with special caution in icing conditions. In our opinion, this means a pilot must cancel the autopilot and hand-fly the aircraft. In fact, according to Colgan Air, this was its recommendation as well as the NTSB's.

According to investigators, at around 1,600 feet the stall warning system ("stick shake/push") shut off the autopilot and moved the Bombardier Dash 8's nose down to regain speed. When the stick shaker activates, the autopilot is automatically disengaged. If the pilot does not react quickly to deal with the impending stall, the stick pusher activates, automatically lowering the nose to effectuate a wing stall recovery.

Investigators are now saying that it is probable that the pilot pulled back too hard to avoid a stall, pitching the aircraft upward 31 degrees and causing it to plunge for about 26 seconds before crashing into the home.

The automatic push of the nose down by the aircraft itself appears to have occurred because the pilots had activated the de-icing system in an effort to shed ice from the wings. The pilots may have been unaware that the airplane would then stall, or appear to stall, at a higher airspeed than if the de-icing boots had not been activated.

Questions regarding ice, airspeed, the flight control system and the pilot's actions, among other things, will be further addressed at the upcoming National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings being held on May 12-14, 2009.

In any event, the actions of the pilot in pulling the nose of the aircraft up to such a degree that an unrecoverable wing stall was inevitable cannot be justified.

Independent Investigation

The NTSB investigates all civil aviation accidents. It determines their probable cause and makes recommendations based on its findings. NTSB investigations can take many months, if not years, to complete.

The NTSB will eventually make a determination as to the probable cause of this accident, but the its assessment of this crash cannot be legally relied upon since NTSB probable cause determinations are not admissible in court proceedings. Additionally, the NTSB can sometimes overlook factors of the crash that may be legally relevant. While lawyers can rely on NTSB factual findings, independent investigations are key to successfully litigating aviation cases.

Because of these reasons, it is important that the victims' families, their attorneys and their experts conduct their own independent thorough investigation to leave no stone unturned and in order to avoid similar loss of life in the future. Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, who represent Susan Wehle's sons in this case, have hired several experts. In addition to having two pilot attorneys already on staff, they have hired a former NTSB investigator, an expert in pilot technique issues, an expert pilot in the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 training programs, as well as an accident reconstruction expert, among others, to help in a private investigation of this crash.

Who is Responsible?

Negligence seems to be the primary factor in this crash. By federal regulation, each and every carrier which takes part in the commercial transportation of passengers is responsible to each and every person to whom it sells a ticket. Each carrier also owes the highest duty of care known to the law for the safety of their passengers, which is the duty of "utmost care."

Therefore, Continental Airlines, Inc., Colgan Air, Inc. and Pinnacle Airlines Corp. are all responsible to the passengers on Flight 3407. Many airlines have contracts with Continental Airlines to operate flights. Colgan Air is among the airlines that contract with them. Pinnacle Airlines Corp. owns Colgan Air.

Also being held accountable in the crash of Flight 3407 is the manufacturer of the aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace Corporation, for its alleged defective design and manufacture of the Dash 8 Q400.

The Case

The aviation disaster lawyers of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February 2009 on behalf of Jonah and Jacob Mink, whose mother,Susan Wehle, was killed in this tragedy.

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court, Western District of New York in Buffalo, against Continental Airlines, Inc. (Texas); Pinnacle Airlines Corp. (Tennessee); Colgan Air, Inc. (Virginia); and Bombardier Aerospace Corporation (Texas). The case number is 09-CV0174-S.

According to the lawsuit, this crash was caused by negligent conduct, as well as defective design and manufacture, including the following:

  • Lack of adequate warnings and instructions
  • Inadequate training of flight crew
  • Negligent operation of the aircraft and monitoring of flight
  • Defective and inadequate de-icing system

• Defective flight control system

In addition to seeking monetary compensation for their losses, the Minks' lawsuit demands accountability from the plane's operators, owner and manufacturer. As the Minks and their attorneys seek to hold the negligent parties responsible for what happened to Flight 3407, it is their greatest hope that a catastrophe such as this never occurs again.