Colgan Air CVR transcript – how sterile should a cockpit be?

The NTSB has released the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) tape from the Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 in the Buffalo crash. It ends in the usual gut-wrenching way that these documents do, and no doubt some of you will have views on whether it should even be released.

It’s important in this case though because it’s widely known that the issue of the so-called sterile cockpit is, at the very least, a possible factor in what happened. This cockpit was clearly not sterile for a good part of the flight, but the talk was pretty much all of aviation and life on the line. Towards the end it becomes a grey area in which the crew, in their iced aircraft, are talking around the subject of icing as well as what’s actually going on.

Anyway, it’s all here. To be honest I’m not sure what I think about it, and I’m curious what pilots will say.

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5 Responses to Colgan Air CVR transcript – how sterile should a cockpit be?

  1. Bus Driver May 12, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    Kieran asked for comments from other professional pilots so I’ll offer mine. A little background data seems in order first though. I’m an A320 first officer for a major airline in the US and I’ve flown extensively in the Northeast including my time at regional airlines flying both turboprops and RJ’s.

    The amount of cockpit chatter below 10,000 feet is more than I would expect and would constitute a violation of the sterile cockpit rule. The conversation that troubled me was the FO’s story about coming to the airline and being told she’d be a Captain in 6 months and how she wasn’t in a big hurry for that since she had never seen ice. The whole conversation took place around the point when they were being vectored to final which isn’t a good time. The rest of it I would say is no big deal but that final conversation did trouble me. Ultimately though I don’t think it had anything to do with the accident.

    I noticed something else too which was the fact that when she was hired she could have upgraded in 6 months but she knew she wouldn’t be ready to be a Captain yet. Especially during periods of high growth regional carriers often have trouble finding qualified applicants and I know of cases where they were street hiring Captains with no turbine or airline time to be Dash-8 Captains in the Northeast and at the same time hiring FO’s with 250 hours and fresh commercial tickets. Now imagine that cockpit crew on a dark and stormy night and it will send shivers down your spine. As Captain Sullenberger pointed out to congress recently no one in the industry is encouraging others to follow in their foot steps. The decline in pay and working conditions combined with other issues are making airline flying a much less attractive career. That means fewer people are pursuing flying which is combining to drive down the quality level of applicants at airlines today.

    The saddest fact of all is that after listening to the first day of public hearings on the crash it’s clear that this crew did not one thing right in responding to the stall. The Captain pulls the yoke back and adds power but not to the detent getting only 75% instead of 90. He didn’t make the callout called for in the FOM and then the FO without being told to raises the flaps which didn’t help matters at all. As a professional airline pilot I can only describe my reaction to their performance and appalled bewilderment. Appalled because I can’t imagine a more botched stall recovery nor one more contrary to basic flight training. Bewildered because I can’t understand how they could screw it up so bad.

  2. Jochen May 14, 2009 at 5:06 am #

    Where to start? Okay, my background. Air Force pilot (AWACS) 5,200 hours. Major Airlines another 7,000 hours (737-200, 737-800, 767-200, 767-300/ER, 757-200). I’m not here to bash these two pilots, they’ve already paid the ultimate price for their errors. But a couple of things stuck out like already mentioned.
    1. Stall recovery and raising the flaps??? The results speak for themselves. Not adding adding full power?? Does Colgan Air have a Standard Recovery Technique (SRT) for stalls and windshear?

    2. According to the transcripts, did the pilots really accomplish the Descent Checklist at around 4,000 feet? Pretty shocking.

    3. Sterile Cockpit. Let’s be honest guys (gals). WE ALL TALK BELOW 10,000 FEET. But to be honest, I did find their level of comm. a little excessive. Okay, a lot excessive. The FO discussing her fears of icing is not that important to me. I actually wouldn’t mind a bit of honesty and it would let me know how much help not to expect from her when the %^&$ hit the fan.

    4. Did I mention raising the flaps on a stall recovery??

    Oy. The worst part is that the blood sucking lawyers our now out in force and will stop at nothing, including denegrating these pilots, in order to get money for their clients. Very Ouch!

  3. rootuser February 3, 2010 at 2:34 am #

    Not a professional pilot here but 10 year PPSEL. I’m confused that the PIC didn’t recognize a stall.
    Since I don’t know airline training procedures I’m curious whether they would’ve ever experienced a stall in an actual Q400 as opposed to a simulator. I wonder if we are seeing the results of a flaw regarding training techniques and situational awareness. The chatter below 10K is not helping but the PIC should’ve recognised that stall.

  4. JT8D February 26, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    Yanking back on the yoke and putting up the flaps is exactly how you would react to an incing induced TAIL stall. Also, in a tail stall the yoke gets “sucked” forward by low pressure under the horizontal stabilizer and in order to recover you have to pull back aggressively. Also, icing induced tail stalls on t-tail planes usually occur right after you lower the flaps, and NASA’s research says putting the flaps back up is good for the recovery from such an event. Also, the Colgan flight had stick pusher activation. Colgan did not have their crews actually practice stick pusher activation in the sim. It’s possible the crew mistook the stick pusher event for an icing induced tail stall event. The thing is, though, in a tail stall the nose will pitch down 45 degrees, which is the give away. In their case, the nose pitched up, so basic unusual attitude recovery should have told them “if the nose is high, push forward.” They did, however add power, which is not consistent with a tail stall, so it’s difficult to understand what they were thinking.

    Another school of thought on the flaps is that half a second after they put the flaps in, everything went to hell. It’s not a stretch to think that the FO may have felt that adding the flaps is what caused the unusual attitude and thus decided to return them to the last stable position.

    Letting the plane get too slow, especially with ice, was a terrible mistake. The horrible unusual attitude recovery (attempt) is mind boggling. I don’t think the lack of sterile cockpit contributed to the crash since there wasn’t much talk at all the last few minutes before the crash. I think this was a case of terrible airmenship, possibly brought on by a below average captain (based on his record of failures), lack of pusher training, fatigue, illness, and the distraction of more ice build up than usual.

  5. R. Marrese July 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    I am concerned –like we all–about the pilot pull up on the stick.
    WHAT ABOUT TAIL PLANE ICING?? Did the pilot think he had Tail Plane Icing.

    What effect do flaps have on tail plane icing?

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