I woke up this morning to the terrible news about the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 during approach to landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. They say bad things happen in three’s, and this was the third airline accident in the past few months; the Continental flight that swerved off a runway in Denver, the Miracle on the Hudson, and last night’s tragedy about five miles short of Runway 23 at Buffalo. Incredibly, there were no deaths for the first two events, but 50 souls perished last night. What happened?
Several clues are immediately available; the weather at the time of the crash, the impact angle of the aircraft, and the tapes of radio transmissions between air traffic control (ATC) and the pilots.
According to www.accuweather.com, the upper air around the airport was very moist and cold, conditions conducive to ice formation. Light snow and rain was falling as the plane went down, perhaps indicating areas of freezing rain. Two pilots reported icing conditions after Flight 3407 disappeared, and one pilot said, “We’ve been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport.” Flight 3407 flew to Buffalo from the southeast after departing Newark, New Jersey. So, there is a high probability Flight 3407 was accumulating ice.
Next, the aircraft impacted the ground at a very steep nose-down pitch angle. Witnesses said the plane “dived into the house.” The aircraft had minimal forward flying speed. There was a catastrophic loss of control. This is caused by major structural failure, or a rapid and severe deterioration of the aircraft’s ability to fly due to stall, instrument failure, or pilot disorientation.
I listened to the final seconds of the radio conversations, posted on the internet, between Buffalo ATC and Flight 3407. ATC was vectoring the flight to intercept the Instrument Landing System (ILS) final approach course to Runway 23 (See approach diagram below). The pilot acknowledged a turn to 260 degrees to intercept the ILS, and maintain an altitude of 2,300 feet until they were established on the ILS course to the runway. About 30 seconds later, ATC directed Flight 3407 to contact the Buffalo tower controller, and the pilot answered this radio call in a calm voice. Less than 15 seconds later, ATC began asking other aircraft if they could see Flight 3407. Whatever happened to Flight 3407 took place in just a few seconds. Apparently, the pilots had no warning.
Further ATC radio transmissions reveal the aircraft last appeared over the “marker” for ILS Runway 23. The marker is a point of the approach identifying the final segment of the approach, and for this runway is called “KLUMP” (See approach diagram). Typically, this is where we intercept the glide path, or vertical guidance, for the instrument approach, and extend the flaps to the final configuration and begin to slow the aircraft in preparation for landing. It is a busy time; transferring from ATC to tower controllers, watching for accurate glide path and course indications on the cockpit instruments, lowering flaps, slowing the aircraft, setting altitudes for a potential missed approach, and completing checklists. We usually keep the autopilot engaged until we are coming down the ILS glide path, and then hand-fly the aircraft. Some pilots do this early in the approach, and others wait until the last few hundred feet. It depends on the weather and personal preference of the flying pilot.
Since the aircraft disappeared over the marker, it seems to me the aircraft lost control about the time the pilots were slowing the aircraft and extending more flaps for landing. The weather observations and pilot reports of icing in the airport area lead me to believe Flight 3407 was accumulating ice. Finally, given the short time following the last radio conversation between the pilots and ATC, and ATC asking other aircraft to search for the plane, Flight 3407 suffered a sudden and severe loss of aircraft control at 2,300 feet, only 1,500 feet about the elevation of the terrain around the Buffalo airport. I assume the crew of Flight 3407 was on the last leg of a long flight duty day, and may have been fatigued. If the autopilot was working, they likely were using it during the final vectoring to the ILS.
I have not flown the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop aircraft (I fly the Airbus 300, wide body, heavy jet transport), but I assume the aircraft had the FAA-prescribed anti-icing and de-icing equipment, and the pilots turned the systems on when they flew into the icing conditions. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators will determine this when they recover the cockpit “black box” recorder. The NTSB will also try to find if the anti-ice and de-ice systems were working properly. Any accident investigation of this magnitude will examine every part of the aircraft and engines. The steep impact angle, high rate of descent, and accompanying fire, however, may seriously degrade the investigators’ ability to discern the exact status of the aircraft at the time of the crash.
I’m not an expert on icing above what is required to operate my aircraft safely. I know in what conditions we may expect ice to occur, and I turn the appropriate systems on and monitor their performance. But, I fly a technologically-advanced jet aircraft having an excess of thrust and effective anti-icing and de-icing equipment. A light turbo-prop aircraft doesn’t have nearly as much power, and flies at lower altitudes that make it more susceptible to icing. It’s easy for me to rapidly transit icing areas and fly at altitudes above the icing.
How ice forms on an aircraft is a complex topic. The “bottom line” for pilots is that you try to stay out of ice, and try to get out of it as soon as possible if you find yourself in it. We can also operate our aircraft systems to minimize the icing effects, and perform other directed actions like flying faster approach speeds.
The basic problem with ice formation is that it makes the aircraft heavier and changes the lift-producing capability of the aircraft’s wing and tail. This amounts to changing how and when the aircraft will “stall,” or lose its ability to generate enough lift to keep flying. The ice can form on the wing, and cause a wing stall, or form on the tail, and cause a tail stall. The bad thing about ice accumulating on the tail, and causing a tail stall, is the condition is worsened when the flaps are extended. Then, if the tail does stall, the aircraft can experience a severe nose-down pitch command as a result of the stall. Since this happens at flap extension, and at a low altitudes with accompanying negative “G” loads (imagine going “over the top” on a roller coaster ride), there is not much time for recovery.
The pilots of Flight 3407 probably had all the anti-ice and de-icing systems on, and they may have been operating correctly. The pilots may have flown at higher-than-normal airspeeds to account for potential ice accumulation. They still could have encountered a rare form of “killer ice,” caused by super-cooled large droplets (SLD). In freezing precipitation, SLD’s attach themselves to areas behind anti or de-iced aircraft surfaces and form ice that can’t be removed during flight in freezing temperatures. During ice-research flights in instrumented airplanes, SLD formation resulted in severe aerodynamic effects on the test aircraft. This means it could have led to catastrophic loss of control.
I wonder if Flight 3407 ran into this kind of SLD “killer ice” somewhere around Buffalo, and accumulated ice the aircraft anti-ice and de-ice systems could not clear adequately. Perhaps the pilots were fatigued, and the autopilot quietly kept up with aircraft flying qualities changes. Now, the pilots would not notice the aircraft controls were becoming “light” and “mushy,” which would indicate the tail was approaching the limit of its effectiveness. When the pilots lowered that last increment of flaps at an altitude of 2,300 feet (1500 AGL), the aircraft may have suddenly entered a tail stall, pitched down an unbelievable 45 degrees, and in nearly the time it takes you to read this sentence, they lost control and crashed.
I still adamantly and confidently believe flying is very safe. It is much, much more dangerous to drive your car. There are nearly 40,000 auto and motorcycle deaths each year, and this doesn’t count those who are seriously injured for life. Once in millions of flights, however, there is a flock of geese at the wrong place at the wrong time, or an airplane flies through “killer ice” at the wrong place and the wrong time. Why do all the passengers and crew on two airplanes survive, and all the passengers and crew on the third die in a fiery crash? In a manner of speaking, Job asks the same question in the Bible when all his children are killed and he is afflicted with painful boils from head to toe.
The morning of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” I heard the news that a seven year old boy I knew, Noah Bell, died after a five year struggle with cancer. He was in so much pain, he could not be held by his mother until the last moments of his life. I asked God, “Why did Noah have to suffer for five years of his short seven year life?” and “It would be an easy thing for you to heal him, why didn’t you give him a chance to have a full life?” A few hours later I saw the news reports about the U.S. Airways flight ditching on the Hudson River. All 155 souls survived that emergency landing. Job’s lament and praise came immediately to my mind, “…God gives and God takes, God’s name be ever blessed.” (Job 1:21, The Message).
Mom was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer March 13, 2008. After four rounds of chemotherapy and 34 radiation treatments, she received news yesterday that a CAT scan did not show any signs of cancer. We were relieved and thankful to God to hear this news. Then, this morning, I see the picture of Flight 3407’s landing gear, upside down and surrounded by flames. There were no survivors.
I find today, and the day of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” to be similar, yet quite different challenges to my faith in God, His Christ, and His word. One day, someone I knew, a young, cancer-stricken child, was taken and 155 strangers saved in a dramatic and, I believe, divine demonstration of God’s mercy. And another day, someone I love very much is spared and 50 strangers are taken in a tragic and terrible accident. How can we make sense of it? Are we supposed to make sense of such things?
In Luke 13:1-5, the people around Jesus tell him about a group of Galileans who were murdered while the Galileans were worshipping God. Jesus says they were not worse sinners because they were murdered, but He told the crowd unless they repented they would likewise perish. Next, Jesus pointed out an accident that killed 18 people, and He also says those victims were not “sinners above all men,” but unless the crowd repented, they would likewise perish.
Job had many questions for God as he sat and scratched his boils with a broken piece of pottery, and remembered his dead children. Job’s friends assumed he committed some terrible sin. Job argued he was not guilty. When God finally spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, the result was Job abhorred himself and repented.
One of my favorite quotations is from Simone Weil, a mid-twentieth century Christian French mystic. Ms. Weil suffered horribly from migraine headaches, but still wrote, “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” Is there a supernatural use for the suffering caused by the crash of Flight 3407? For little Noah Bell’s painful death?
You have the same questions about events in your life, I’m sure.
Abraham, the father of the Jewish and Christian faiths, negotiated with God about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lived in Sodom with Lot’s family. Each time Abraham asked God to spare the cities for a certain number of righteous people living in them, God agreed. Abraham finally “prayed down” the number of righteous souls to ten, and then stopped. Now we know that Abraham overestimated the number of righteous people in the cities, there was only one, and left off praying before God left off answering. God destroyed the cities, but still saved Lot and Lot’s children. Through it all, Abraham’s basis (Genesis 18: 25) for his pleading prayers was, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” We see the same confident belief expressed in other sections of both the Old and New Testaments.
Ultimately, I can’t give you answers to all my questions today. I’ve read we should not let the things we don’t understand interfere with the things we do understand, like John 3:16. Despite the heartbreaking things we see today, we are living in a day of great grace and abounding mercy; at any moment we can immediately assure our eternal destiny and believe in Jesus for eternal salvation. We can come just the way we are, with all our sins, all our addictions, all our pain, all our worries, and all our fears. He came to heal the sick and to save sinners. Don’t let your sin keep you from coming. Christ came for people just like you and delights to save you and any other hurting, suffering, sin-saturated soul. I’m an excellent example of how deep into the dark and evil pit He can reach to save a lost soul. Stop what you are doing, and cry out to him right now to save you, before you perish. I believe this is what Jesus would say to anyone who would ask him about Flight 3407. As for the souls on that airplane, we must trust the Judge of all the earth to do what is just.
After previous aviation accidents where people were killed, like the one in Lexington, Kentucky two years ago, I've asked God to prevent such terrible events in the future. If there must be an airplane accident due to decrees beyond our understanding, I've prayed that the people in that accident would be drawn mightily to Christ and enabled to immediately and powerfully cry out to Jesus to be saved. God can do this in a moment. Perhaps every soul on Flight 3407, in a split-second of grace, asked Him to save them before they perished. One of the two thieves crucified with Christ asked for salvation as they suffered. Later, Jesus took that man as His first companion into Heaven. With God, all things are possible.
What can we do to lessen the probability of more aircraft accidents? I believe the most important thing we can do is pray, pray in the name of Jesus for safety for every flight you are on or a loved one is on. And while you’re at it, please pray for my safety and the safety of all pilots flying in this country and throughout the world.
Fatigue is an important issue now for airline and overnight package delivery pilots. There is a growing movement to rewrite the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot crew duty day and crew rest requirements that were originally written over sixty years ago. Pilots are now flying more legs, operating longer hours, and flying though the night when it is most difficult for the body to operate effectively. Several airplane accidents in the past thirty years were attributed to pilot fatigue. The NTSB continues to ask the FAA to rewrite these regulations, but so far the FAA is dragging its feet. You can contact your congressman and lobby him to pressure the FAA to write new regulations that give pilots more crew rest versus the number of legs and time of day they fly during a trip.
NASA leads the way in ice-formation testing, evaluating and minimizing hazardous weather threats to flying safety, and also investigating the effects of short-term and chronic fatigue on pilot performance. We need to continue funding NASA aviation research to make flying even safer in the future, and you can ask your congressional representatives to increase NASA funding.
Today’s events force me to re-evaluate the priorities in my life, and to thank God for the multitude of simple mercies He gives to me every day. I pray for the families and loved ones of those who were lost on Flight 3407. I pray for Noah’s family. I pray for you. If you are troubled today, I encourage you to cast your cares on the One who cares for you.
God bless you,