After crash, experts survey regional pilots’ skills
Pilots flying for regional airlines like the Continental Connection flight that crashed outside Buffalo last week, killing 50, generally have less experience and earn less money than pilots at major c
Pilots flying for regional airlines like the Continental Connection flight that crashed outside Buffalo last week, killing 50, generally have less experience and earn less money than pilots at major carriers, according to experts.
But fewer flying hours and less pay don’t translate into less safety, said Kit Darby, a former United Airlines pilot and now an aviation consultant in Atlanta.
“The consistency is performance standards, regardless of age or experience,” Darby said.
Still, with the crash investigation focusing on icing and how long Flight 3407 was on autopilot, the skills and experience of the pilots will continue to be questioned, some experts said.
“The industry will be looking at this, especially in terms of qualifications,” said Louis Smith, president of FltOps.com, a Web site about pilot training and career management.
Crew members on the Feb. 12 flight from Newark reported ice buildup on the wings at an altitude of between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. At just under 2,000 feet, Capt. Marvin Renslow lowered the flaps to begin his landing.
An automatic safety system sensed the plane was slowing down dangerously, and investigators say the pilot may have pulled back too hard on the controls after the safety system tried to push the nose downward to gain speed and increase lift.
But National Transportation Safety Board investigator Steven Chealander said that the possibility that the pilot overreacted was only one of an almost unlimited number of scenarios.
The plane lurched up and down and rolled violently from side to side as it fell onto a house.
Colgan Air, the Pinnacle Airlines subsidiary that was operating the flight, defended both its training programs and the pilot Wednesday. In a statement, it said that its “crew training programs meet or exceed the regulatory requirements for all major airlines.”
“Colgan has instilled a systemic culture of safety throughout our organization that is rooted in significant investment in crew training, systems, leadership and equipment,” the statement said.
Regional Airlines Association Roger Cohen said that regional airline pilots receive “exactly the same training” as major airline pilots.
Beginning pay for a co-pilot on a regional airline can be as low at $18,000, according to Smith. Darby estimated that beginning pilots earn about $26,000 a year.
By comparison, starting salaries for co-pilots at major airlines start at $25,000 and can go up to $55,000, Smith said.
And pilots at regional airlines are often hired with 2,000 hours of flight experience, compared with 5,000 to 6,000 hours for new hires at the major airlines, Darby said.
Renslow, 47, of Tampa, Fla., was believed to be handling pilot duties during the flight’s final moments. He had 3,379 hours of flying experience, but had flown that type of plane only since December.
The flight’s first officer, Rebecca Lynne Shaw, 24, of Seattle, had 2,244 hours of experience and had flown the Bombardier Dash 8 for 774 hours.
Many pilots choose to stay at regional airlines because they like them, said Cohen, whose organization represents 30 regional airlines across the country.
“They get to actually fly the airplane more, as opposed to a transcontinental flight, where you get the airplane up and you just sit there,” Cohen said.
Regional airlines experienced growth – as much as 35 percent a year – after the Sept. 11 attacks because major airlines cut back service. Regionals were there to pick up routes that major airlines stopped flying on, Darby said.
However, with recent increases in fuel prices and the downturn in the economy, regional airlines have struggled, he said.