Pinnacle Air Should Have Found Pilot Failures, Consultants Say

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events

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Reported from Bloomberg.com

By Mary Jane Credeur

May 15 (Bloomberg) — Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s Colgan unit could have done more to find two failed flight tests that the pilot in a fatal New York crash didn’t disclose when he was hired, air safety consultants said.

Pilot Marvin Renslow, who was at the controls for the Feb. 12 accident that killed 50 people, revealed one failed test and omitted two others when he applied at the carrier in 2005, the airline said. Colgan should have pressed for more details on his record, said John Nance, who runs a Seattle aviation consulting firm under his name.

“The airline is going to be turning that person loose on its passengers,” said Nance, a retired Air Force and commercial airline pilot with 40 years of flying. “The records are available, you just have to track them down.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is examining whether the plane’s crew responded improperly to a stall warning before the crash of a Continental Airlines Inc. flight operated by Pinnacle’s Colgan. Three days of hearings ended yesterday, and Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to reevaluate pilot training.

Renslow, 47, would have been “immediately dismissed” had supervisors known his application was falsified, Colgan Vice President Mary Finnigan said May 13 at a hearing of the NTSB in Washington. While employed at Colgan, Renslow had two more failures during routine tests.

In 2007, the FAA told airlines they could ask general aviation pilots for waivers to obtain prior flight-check records, so Colgan had an opportunity to go back to check applicants before the accident, NTSB member Kitty Higgins said May 13 at a hearing on the crash.

‘Professional Responsibility’

“Consistent with standard practice in the airline industry, Colgan did not attempt to access information on prior general aviation check-ride failures by its applicants,” Joe F. Williams, a spokesman for Colgan, said in an e-mail.

Pilots take tests, called check rides, every six months and they require about six hours, with half the time used for an oral exam and the rest in a simulator or airplane, said Frank Ayers, chairman of the flight training department at Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida, who has flown for 36 years.

“You sort of establish a rhythm, and you’re expected to pass your check ride,” Ayers said. “It’s your professional responsibility.”

Commuter airlines should use all tools at their disposal to investigate the background of their pilot candidates, he said.

“Like any employer, they need to know who they’re hiring,” Ayers said. “If you see a pattern of check-ride failures, that should raise a red flag.”

The results of check rides are maintained by individual airlines or flight schools.

‘Discrepancies’ in Records

Colgan follows the FAA’s Pilot Records Improvement Act protocols and re-checked “the records for all pilots,” Williams said. He didn’t say when the review occurred.

The company “did find some discrepancies but nothing that we determined to warrant dismissal,” he said. Williams said he didn’t have more detail on how many pilot records had discrepancies, and he didn’t describe them.

Renslow didn’t have a history of airline flights before applying at Colgan in August 2005. Before joining Colgan, Renslow’s first pilot position listed on his job application was a training program at Gulfstream Academy of Aeronautics, which is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the NTSB said. He had 3,379 flight hours at the time of the crash.

Supermarket Stock Clerk

Renslow’s previous jobs included work as a stock clerk at Publix Inc. supermarkets from January 2004 to August 2005, according to NTSB reports. He had also been a sales representative for Verizon Communications Inc. and a business travel specialist at American Express Co., the records show.

The FAA act improving pilot records requires that a hiring carrier obtain and evaluate information about pilot training and safety background from previous employer airlines.

The act covers records maintained by the FAA such as pilot certification on specific types of aircraft, though not prior failures in tests.

Carriers have been able to get check-ride results for general aviation pilots since 1996 with a privacy waiver from the pilot, said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA. The advisory the agency sent in 2007 was a reminder, he said.

Only “one, maybe two” carriers called to ask questions about the reminder, John Ryan, an FAA executive, testified yesterday at the NTSB hearing.

Vetting Pilot Candidates

The Pinnacle situation shows the need for the industry to develop “a reasonable background-check system,” so that airlines will seek out all information available, Robert Clifford, a Chicago aviation attorney who represents relatives of victims aboard the flight, said in an interview.

“There is no standard on this issue,” said Clifford. “It is left exclusively to each airline to make the judgment about how deeply they will vet someone.”

Schumer said improved pilot training may help. He said in a statement accompanying his letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that “while it is impossible to eliminate all human error, proper training can help to minimize the risk.”

In addition to Renslow’s check-flight records, the NTSB panel is looking into hiring and training practices at Colgan, unauthorized chatter among the pilots and whether fatigue played a role. The flight’s copilot, Rebecca Shaw, 24, commuted across country all night to her job. Renslow and Shaw both died in the crash.

Keeping Records

The “vast majority” of pilots have only one or two failed checks in an entire career, and they typically occur early in training, said Nance, adding that he’s never failed any of about 70 checks he’s had. If Colgan had known that Renslow had failed three test flights instead of one, it might not have hired him or might have required further training, Nance said.

“The fact that he didn’t disclose them, though, does not bode well,” Nance said. “A wise airline hiring department, if they see a series of busts, will consider who this person is that they’re about to hire.”

Pinnacle, based in Memphis, Tennessee, operates regional flights with small jets and turboprops for other carriers including Continental, US Airways Group Inc., UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc.

Roger Cohen, executive director of the Regional Airline Association in Washington, which represents regional carriers, said he hadn’t heard whether members will re-check pilot records.

Pilot Certification

“Each airline, each certificate holder keeps a record” of their own employees, he said. “All of the pilots at every airline have the exact same certificate” to be able to carry passengers.

Continental expects its partners to “adhere to the highest levels of operational safety standards” and hasn’t changed its existing agreement with Colgan for regional flying, said Julie King, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based carrier.

US Airways relies on Colgan for 32, or 1 percent, of its daily flights and hasn’t made any changes to its accord with the regional carrier, said Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for the Tempe, Arizona-based carrier.

Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman, said the company’s relationship with Colgan remains the same. Betsy Talton, a Delta spokeswoman, said her carrier’s dealings with Pinnacle haven’t changed.

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