On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549, a scheduled commercial passenger flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, North Carolina, onto the waters of the Hudson River after the plane, an Airbus A320-214, had been struck by a flock of birds which caused an immediate and complete loss of thrust in both engines. Had Capt. Sullenberger, and the crew of Flight 1549, not responded as they did, in a uniformly calm and cool manner while adhering to the tenets FAA safety regulations, there's a decent chance that all of the 155 occupants aboard the Airbus 320 would not be with us today, and that this story of heroism, in the face of looming tragedy, would have a different ending (Sturcke, 2009).
On February 12, 2009, in the wake of the glee and excitement that followed Sullenberger's heroic controlled ditch in the Hudson River, a small crew on Colgan Air Flight 3407, a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Buffalo, NY, faced a similarly perilous situation. Their plane - a 74-seat Bombardier DHC8-402 Q400 - started to drastically lose speed in the cold, frigid air of the Buffalo skyline. The plane's pilot and copilot, who may have been suffering from sleep deprivation (fatigue), acted in the exact opposite way one is supposed to in a "stalling" situation. Instead of lowering the nose of the plane to gain speed and improve lift, the plane's pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, ignored protocol and proceeded to raise the nose of plane, higher and higher, further slowing down the plane's airspeed until it effectively stalled out and crashed, killing the 49 people on board along with one individual on the ground (NTSB, 2010).
This tragedy, the first fatal commercial plane crash in the United States in several years, compelled the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation to reexamine pilot polices and procedures for domestic and international flights. Following an investigation into the Colgan crash and after reviewing pilot policies and procedures, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood and FAA Administrator, Randolph Babbitt identified pilot fatigue as a top concern for airline safety. Shortly thereafter, Administrator Babbit championed several initiatives that would "specify limitations on the hours of pilot flight and duty time to address problems relating to pilot fatigue" (Dorr & Duquette, "Pilot Fatigue," 2010).
It is the purpose of this paper to examine these proposed changes in pilot flight time and duty time as well as what factors precipitated these proposed changes. Additionally, this paper will weigh the costs of the proposed changes against the potential benefits to provide insight as to whether these changes will make a positive impact on the aviation industry. In short, assuming these new pilot rest regulations and fatigue mitigation strategies are adopted, will the airways actually be safer?
WHAT HAPPENED IN BUFFALO?
To understand the context of these proposed changes in pilot flight time and duty time it is helpful to understand what precipitated these proposed changes. Really, to consider whether or not these changes were thought through or if this is an example of a knee-jerk reaction by government bureaucrats. As with most things, the truth lies some where in the middle. That is to say, new polices concerning flight rest have been around for decades, the last proposal regarding a change in pilot rest was submitted in 1995. But in large part, due to Airline lobbyists, the ATA and a claimed lack of sufficient evidence to persuade the consensus that pilot fatigue was, indeed, an issue, these attempts by the FAA to change pilot rest policy were stymied (Brandon, 2000). However, one can also argue that these new policy changes represent the overreaching arm of government bureaucrats to "fix" a problem that becomes overblown due to recent events -- in effect, making sure that no tragedy goes to waste.
To understand this tension between doing what is right because it is right and doing something for the sake of saying one did something, it would be helpful to revisit the Colgan crash in further detail.
Here is what one knows based upon the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. The turboprop, the Bombardier Q400, began to fly at a dangerously slow speed, 135 knots (250 km/h), at low altitude. When this happened, a safety device known as the "Stick Shaker" sounded. This is to alert the pilots that they are in a low speed condition. Instead of following the established procedures in a pre-stall situation, lowering the nose of the plane and adding power to pick up speed, Capt. Renslow did almost the opposite -- he lifted the nose of the plane and only added 75% power. The plane slowed to 131 knots (243 km/h) and the last ditch safety device known as the "Stick Pusher" activated to lower the plane's nose to prevent stalling. Capt. Renslow overrode the "Stick Pusher" and pulled on the control yoke attempting to lift the plane. The plane stalled - stalling is a loss of lift and increase in drag that occurs when an aircraft is flown at an angle of attack greater than the angle for maximum lift (NTSB 2010) -- and roughly 26 seconds later the crew and the passengers of Colgan Air Flight 3407 (along with a civilian on the ground) were dead (NTSB 2010).
There where many questions following the crash. Obviously, the most pressing question was, what caused the crash? The NTSB, after their investigation, found the primary cause to be pilot error. In their detailed report they expound further:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the captain's inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover. Contributing to the accident were (1) the flight crew's failure to monitor airspeed in relation to the rising position of the lowspeed cue, (2) the flight crew's failure to adhere to sterile cockpit procedures, (3) the captain's failure to effectively manage the flight, and (4) Colgan Air's inadequate procedures for airspeed selection and management during approaches in icing conditions (NTSB, 2010).
Although there are several other reasons cited in the "probable cause" statement by the NTSB, pilot error (#3) is really the main reason 50 people lost their lives. One can try and argue that sterile cockpit procedures and Colgan Air's inadequate training may have played a role, but at the end of the day, not following proper stall procedures is inexcusable. It's also baffling for pilots to imagine why Capt. Renslow responded the way he did as gross pilot error of this caliber is not often seen. Michael Barr, at the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program had this to say, "It's just the opposite of what any pilot would do" (Levin, 2009).
Capt. Renslow anomalous and head-scratching response to the pre-stall conditions left people -- especially experts in the aviation industry - to speculate as to what caused him to respond in the manner he did. After all, what would compel a trained and experienced pilot to betray the fundamentals of aviation?
Some suggested he was a poor pilot. After all, Renslow had failed four previous Federal Aviation Administration check flights to determine whether he was qualified to fly. Moreoever, he had also failed an airline check in the past. Subsequenlty he passed each of the checks upon retaking the tests and the Colgan stated that his skills were adequate (Levin, 2009).
Henry Bowles, a pilot and aviation guru, had this to say about the crash, "Most pilots expected sleep deprivation to play the leading role in the Colgan 3407 accident. The industry has averaged nearly an accident a year for the past twenty years with fatigue listed as a contributing factor" (Bowles, 2010). However, despite this widely held position regarding fatigue being a factory, the NTSB board stated "The pilots' performance was likely impaired because of fatigue, but the extent of their impairment and the degree to which it contributed to the performance deficiencies that occurred during the flight cannot be conclusively determined" (2010). In other words, fatigue probably played a factor, but the results are inconclusive.
Nevertheless, despite the inconclusive findings on fatigue as a causal factor in the Colgan crash, many people, including FAA Administrator Babbit believe that fatigue is still a serious issue. Administrator Babbit had this to say for an FAA press release, "I know firsthand that fighting fatigue is a serious issue, and it is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot. After years of debate, the aviation community is moving forward to give pilots the tools they need to manage fatigue and fly safely" (Dorr & Duquette, "Pilot Fatigue," 2010).
Is fatigue a serious issue for pilots? Well, for one thing, there are studies that demonstrate how the effects of fatigue…