Federal investigators have recovered the "black box" voice and data recorders from the Continental Airlines commuter plane that slammed into a house outside Buffalo last night, and streaming audio of the conversation between the pilot and air traffic controllers revealed all was calm moments before the crash.
Continental Flight 3407 was approaching Buffalo Niagara International Airport at about 10:20 p.m. when it suddenly dove into the house, killing all 49 people aboard and one person in the home. Investigators have not determined what caused the crash - though authorities said the plane experienced significant icing - but whatever it was, it appears to have happened quickly and without warning.
Air traffic controllers had a routine conversation with the flight crew, which included Capt. Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw, just minutes before the crash, then lost contact with the plane. There was no mayday from the aircraft, according to a recording of the cockpit provided by LiveATC.net.
The flight was operated for Continental by Colgan Air. Renslow had logged 3,379 hours of flight time with the carrier since 2005, and Shaw had 2,244 hours, according to the Associated Press.
Buffalo's air traffic control is available by streaming audio posted at LiveATC.com, and it suggests no one on the crew knew anything was amiss. At last contact, the air traffic controller said the plane was three miles from a radio beacon that was, in turn, about four miles northeast of the airport. The controller instructed Flight 3407 to turn left to intercept the radio signal that would guide it to the runway. Shaw calmly repeated the instructions.
Tower: Colgan thirty-four zero seven three miles from KLUMP, turn left heading two six zero maintain two thousand three hundred until established localizer clears ILS (instrument landing system) approach runway two three.
Flight 3407: Left two sixty two thousand three hundred until established and cleared ILS two three Colgan thirty-four zero seven.
Tower: Colgan thirty-four zero seven contact tower one two zero point five have a good night.
Flight 3407: Thirty-four zero seven.
One minute later, Flight 3407 went silent. The air traffic controller tried to reestablish contact. When that failed, the controller asked the pilot of a Delta Airlines airliner in the vicinity if he could see the plane.
Tower: Delta nineteen ninety-eight, look off your right side about 5 miles for a Dash 8. Should be twenty-three hundred (feet altitude). Do you see anything there?
Delta 1998: Negative Delta ninteen ninety-eight. We're just in the bottoms and nothing on the TCAS (traffic collision avoidance system).
Tower: Colgan thirty-four zero seven, Buffalo...
At that point, air traffic controllers urged authorities on the ground to investigate.
Tower: You need to talk to somebody at least five miles northeast, OK, possibly Clarence. (Clarence is the town where the flight went down.) That area right in there, Akron area. Either state police or sheriff's department need to find out if anything is on the ground. This aircraft was five miles out, all of a sudden we have no response from that aircraft.
Tower: All I can tell you is there is an aircraft over the marker and we're not talking to them now.
Flight 3407 crashed into a house, killing all 49 people aboard and one person in the house. Two others escaped with minor injuries. "It was a direct hit," David Bissonette, Erie County emergency coordinator, said during a televised press conference. "It's remarkable that it only took out one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighborhood."
It's too early to speculate on what caused the crash, but the Buffalo News says air traffic controllers were concerned about foul weather. "We've been picking up rime ice here," one pilot told the tower, referring to the opaque, granular ice that forms on planes during ice storms. Another pilot confirmed ice in the area. At the time of the crash it was 17 degrees at the Buffalo airport, with light snow, fog, and 17 mile per hour winds.
The Q400 is 107 feet long and 27 feet high with a wingspan of 93 feet and a fuselage diameter of almost nine feet. It has a maximum cruising altitude of 25,000 feet and top cruising speed of 414 miles per hour. Bombardier markets the plane as being one of the most technologically advanced and cost effective turboprops on the market today. There are more than 140 in operation worldwide.
Scandanavian Airline Systems permanently grounded its Q400 fleet in 2007 after three crashes in seven months. The Danish Accident Investigation Board deemed the Q-400 safe, but last year Bombardier paid SAS $164 million in compensation.
Flight 3407 flew under the Continental Express banner but was operated by Colgan Air, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Aviation. In an arrangement that is standard at most big hub airports, Continental subcontracts Colgan to funnel traffic into its hubs with smaller commuter planes. Continental began deploying the Q400 at Newark last year, saying the plane "ushered in a new era for regional flying" because at 74 seats it is bigger than many of the other regional jets it flies.
It was the first deadly commercial airliner crash in the United States since a Comair flight crashed on takeoff from Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 27, 2006, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
UPDATE 8 p.m. Feb 13: The Associated Press reports Flight 3407 experienced significant icing on the wings and windshield just before it started pitching and rolling violently. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board stopped short of saying ice buildup caused the crash and have not identified the cause.
Listen to the air traffic control tape, which includes conversations with several planes: