02.14.09

Deadly Blunder

Expert plane crash investigators have repeatedly warned federal regulators about the dangers of ice buildup, which may have brought down Flight 3407. The Daily Beast's Clive Irving asks: Why has the FAA ignored their call for tougher standards?

If you are cruising along the highway at 55 miles per hour and you suddenly find the steering doesn’t work, and you are lucky enough to survive, whom would you blame? The car maker? Or the mechanic who services it?

Suppose the mechanic said, “This has happened before. I told those guys in Detroit. They replied, 'Okay, it happens. But not very often. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the car.'”

This all too familiar and prolonged difference in the standards held by expert crash investigators and the FAA regulators (who have been far too cozy with both airlines and planemakers) has a deadly cost.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? We wouldn’t put up with it for a minute.

Yet that is very similar to the situation revealed by the crash of Continental Flight 3407 near Buffalo on Thursday.

As I reported on Feb. 13, the prime suspect in the crash is ice. The National Transportation Safety Board has now confirmed that the pilots reported their windshield was icing up before they lost control of the Bombardier Q400 turboprop.

I pointed out that a series of crashes since 1994 involving three types of turboprop commuter planes occurred when ice on the wings and control surfaces caused loss of control.

The essence of the issue is this: These are winter events. Turboprops don’t fall out of the sky in summer.

To be sure, thousands of these commuter planes fly safely through winter weather of all kinds. But a few do not.

Something is happening that only a collaboration between an aerodynamicist and a meteorologist can model to recreate an infrequent but deadly encounter between climate and machine.

It is likely that as you can get intensely localized cloudbursts, you can also get intense microbursts of moisture that flash-freezes. I would bet that these conditions completely overpower the ability of certain types of plane to shed the ice as it forms.

The three turboprops I cited, the Q400, the European ATR-72, and the Embraer-120, all have slender wings shaped for maximum efficiency at speeds lower than those flown by jets. It is possible that this design is more vulnerable to ice buildup at the critical stage of final approach to an airport. We just don’t know, but we need to.

For some time now, the Safety Board—your mechanic—has been pressing the FAA to toughen the standards for testing an airplane’s vulnerability to icing. In fact, the board gives the FAA an “unacceptable” rating on icing questions. This all too familiar and prolonged difference in the standards held by expert crash investigators and the FAA regulators (who have been far too cozy with both airlines and planemakers) has a deadly cost.

Flying in the US remains astonishingly safe. But crashes don’t involve statistics. They involve people.

Clive Irving is Senior Consulting Editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. He has flown the A320 in a simulator and earned an “Honorary Captain” certificate for making a perfect approach and landing at JFK—thankfully, he says, not for real.