One of the reasons Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center five years ago is that the pilot of the doomed plane never received simulator training in how to respond to the flight conditions that confronted him that February night.
That’s about to change. The Federal Aviation Administration last week proposed new standards for flight simulators used to train pilots. Those standards will include replicating the kind of stall that occurred in February 2009 as air speed slowed dangerously and Capt. Marvin D. Renslow took the exact opposite action the situation required. As a consequence, Flight 3407 plummeted to the ground, crashing into a house and killing all 49 people on board, including Renslow, and one person in the house.
The change in FAA standards is mainly due to pressure brought by the family members of the victims. Organizing themselves as the Families of Continental Flight 3407, they pressured Congress to pass significant new rules on pilot training and rest time – and pressured Congress again when some members tried to weaken the law. With the consistent support of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the law took effect and is now producing benefits such as the FAA’s plan for upgraded flight simulators.
These simulators are part of the infrastructure of pilot training, and offer invaluable lessons that could otherwise be gained only at great risk. But those simulators have not been required to reproduce the kind of “upsets” that brought down Flight 3407.
The air transport industry – and the FAA, which is staffed by many from the industry – resisted these changes furiously, but to the benefit of all the law was passed. The health of the air travel business depends, first and foremost, upon fliers’ belief that once they leave terra firma for a flight six or seven miles in the air, they will safely return.
The crash of Flight 3407 not only threatened that sense of security, but it plainly revealed that some fliers were at heightened risk, especially on regional airlines such as the now defunct Colgan Air, which operated the Continental Connection flight. Pilots and crew members of regional carriers typically had less training and often less rest and made far less money than pilots at larger airlines.
Some airlines are crying that the new rules are creating a pilot shortage. That is certainly possible, but it’s a short-term problem that will be resolved. Crashes such as the one that occurred here create permanent and avoidable tragedies. The problem is worth waiting out.
Improving safety remains a long-haul effort. The FAA has only proposed the new simulator standards. Next comes a 90-day public comment period, after which the FAA will finalize the new standards. Even then, the agency will give simulator operators three years to comply. All in all, it will be nearly five years before the rule takes effect.
For that reason, among others, it is good that Schumer has pledged to watch the FAA “like a hawk” to be sure the standards are actually implemented. Given the history of this law, that’s not only wise but necessary.