Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 Cockpit

The Hazards of Going on Autopilot

Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 Cockpit

Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 Cockpit

At 9:18 P.M. on February 12, 2009, Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, took off from Newark International Airport. Rebecca Shaw, the first officer, was feeling ill and already dreaming of the hotel room that awaited in Buffalo. The captain, Marvin Renslow, assured her that she’d feel just fine once they landed. As the plane climbed to its cruising altitude of sixteen thousand feet, the pair continued to chat amiably, exchanging stories about Shaw’s ears and Renslow’s Florida home.

The flight was a short one and, less than an hour after takeoff, the plane began its initial descent. At 10:06 P.M., it dropped below ten thousand feet. According to the F.A.A.’s “sterile cockpit” rule, all conversation from that point forward is supposed to be essential to the flight. “How’s the ears?” Renslow asked. “Stuffy and popping,” Shaw replied. Popping is good, he pointed out. “Yeah, I wanna make ’em pop,” she assured him. They laughed and began talking about how a different Colgan flight had reached Buffalo before theirs did.

As ground control cleared the flight to descend to twenty-three hundred feet, the pilots’ conversation continued, unabated. There was the captain’s own training, which was, when he first got hired, substantially less than Shaw’s. There were Shaw’s co-workers, complaining about not being promoted quickly enough. There was the ice outside. Renslow recalled his time flying in Charleston, West Virginia, and how, being a Florida man, the cold had caught him doubly off guard. As the plane lost altitude, it continued to decelerate.

At 10:16 P.M., the plane’s impending-stall alert system—the stick shaker—kicked in. “Jesus Christ,” Renslow said, alarmed. In his panicked confusion, he pulled the shaker toward him instead of pushing it away from him. Seventeen seconds later, he said, “We’re down,” and, two seconds after that, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground.


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