The pilots of a commuter jet that fell from the sky amid snow and mist as it approached Buffalo airport were struggling to regain control of the aircraft in the final seconds before it nosedived into a house, killing all 49 on board and one on the ground, investigators said yesterday.
First indications of the desperate drama inside the cockpit were found on voice recordings on the plane's black box, which survived the crash and has been sent to Washington for analysis. The recorders seemed to bolster initial theories that ice on the plane may have been a factor. Earlier during the descent, the crew verbally noted "significant ice build-up on the windshield and leading edge of the wing," a spokesman for the National Transport Safety Board, NTSB, said.
The plane, a 74-seat Dash 8 Q400 operated by Colgan Air but flying under the colours of Continental Connection, came down at about 10.20pm on Thursday as it made a final approach to the airport at Buffalo, New York, close to the Canadian border, en route from Newark, New Jersey.
Miraculously, two other peopleinside the house, Karen Wielinski, 57, and her 22-year-old daughter, Jill, escaped with minor injuries.
The voice recorder captured the aircraft making "severe pitch and roll excursions" moments after the pilot lowered the landing gear and extended the wing flaps for landing. It would seem that the cockpit retracted both the flaps and wheels to regain control, but in vain. The voice recording goes blank within seconds.
Witnesses reported hearing the whining and sputtering of the twin turbo-prop aircraft and seeing its outline as it fell from the clouds, one wing lower than the other. It crashed through the roof of the house, creating two loud explosions and a ball of fire. On the ground, all that could be made out of the crippled equipment was its tail section and what looked like a wheel silhouetted against the flames.
The conflagration was so intense that horrified neighbours could only watch, unable to get anywhere close to the crash site. Even as firemen arrived on the scene, there seemed no question but that all inside the aircraft must have perished instantly.
"It basically dove right into the top of the house from my perspective," said Dave Bissonette, director of emergency response in Clarence Centre, the suburban hamlet outside Buffalo where the plane came down. "It landed on the house, clearly a direct hit. It's remarkable that it only took one house. As devastating as that is, it could have wiped out the entire neighbourhood."
The tapes from air-traffic controllers indicated the suddenness of the emergency. One moment, the pilot was conversing with the tower, the next there was silence and the tracking blip on the radar screens had gone. There was no sound of distress in the last call from the cockpit.
At least one other plane on approach to Buffalo at the time reported an accumulation of rime ice – which is granular in appearance – on its wing surfaces. Ice on the wings of a plane can alter aerodynamics and interfere with lift and handling. It is a well-known danger among pilots, but aviation experts said the Q400 was modern – it had only been delivered to Colgan Air in April last year – and was equipped to deal with such conditions.
However, there are past instances on record where models of the Dash 8, made by the Canadian Bombardier corporation, have encountered difficulties, including sudden stalls, because of ice accretion.
The limited area of destruction suggested the plane may have been in a steep dive before striking the house in Clarence Centre. "It just dropped off the radar," a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Authority said of the last seconds of Flight 3407.
Bob Dworak, whose own house is not far from the crash site, recalled hearing the plane and realising something was amiss. "This one sounded a little funny, made some sputtering noises," he recalled. "There was a big bang, and the house shook."
It was the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the US since 27 August 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from a Lexington, Kentucky runway that was too short.
Eyewitness accounts: 'There was nobody for us to save'
I was within 10 feet of the crater 30 minutes after the crash. I've been a paramedic for over 20 years and this left me speechless. I saw a crater, I saw a fire and I saw a tail-section of the plane, but there was nobody there for us to help.
Stephen Wallace, paramedic
I could hear it coming down and it was just like in the movies, where you hear that high-pitched sound. But I could feel it more than I could hear it. And there was a sinking feeling in my stomach. It didn't take more than a few seconds to know it was a plane.
Keith Burtis, eyewitness
It was [flying] nose down, hardly above the treetops. There was nothing burning on the plane and no damage. Nothing seemed wrong, except it was on a bad path. It was a bad, bad impact. It was hot, and the explosion was massive. I couldn't see anyone surviving.
Tony Tatro, eyewitness
I'm just thinking about my mom. To tell you the truth I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I've never heard before.
Chris Kausner, who told his parents that his sister died in the crash
Radio search during final moments of flight 3407
Air traffic control: Delta 1998, look out your right side about five miles for a Dash-8. It should be 2300 [ft]. Do you see anything there?
Flight Delta 1998: Ah,negative ... There's nothing on the traffic collision avoidance system.
ATC: Ground communication, you need to talk to somebody at least five miles north-east, possibly Clarence, that area right in there ... Either state police or sheriff's department. We need to find if anything is on the ground. This aircraft was five miles out and all of a sudden we have no response from that aircraft ...
Buffalo airport: All I can say is that the aircraft was over the marker and we're not talking to him now.
ATC: For all aircraft, this frequency, we did have a Dash-8 over the marker that didn't make the airport. He appears to be about five miles away from the airport ...
Flight Cactus 1452: Didyou find Colgan?
ATC: Unfortunately, they said he went down, right over the marker ...
Flight Colgan 3268: Colgan 3268 approach.
ATC: Sir, I need you to prepare yourself. Um, a Dash-8 inbound we think went down over the outer marker.Um, we're not sure why.Reuse content