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February 13, 2009

Buffalo Crash: The Hidden Menace of Ice

 Photo: Dave Sherman / AP Photo

In The Daily Beast, Clive Irving, the senior consulting editor here at Condé Nast Traveler, finds connections between last night's crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo and other incidents involving turboprops and ice. 

There is something hauntingly familiar about the crash of the Bombardier Dash 8 commuter plane in Buffalo. While a lot more information is needed before investigators can be sure of the cause, there are precursors that suggest a pattern.

It begins with the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 at Roselawn, Indiana, in October 1994. It was a different type of plane, a European-built ATR-72 (the Bombardier is a Canadian plane). The cause was ice on the wings.

For the The Daily Beast.

Further reading:

* 50 Killed in Plane Crash Near Buffalo (NYT)
* Clive Irving on The Radical Future of Flying (CNT/Nov. 2008)
* Flying into the Unknown (CNT/Nov. 2007)
* Clive Irving on Test Flying the Blended Wing (Video)
* On the Fly:  Airline coverage on the Daily Traveler


Oh boy, this is one I wouldn't touch, having myself spent too much time flying airplanes in icing conditions.

Well, lemme touch it gently.

It's so complex a subject and so easy to misinterpret. Having read Clive's Daily Beast article, he makes the basic error of confusing de-icing boots (inflatable rubber sheets on the leading edges of wings and horizontal stabilizers, which is what the Buffalo commuterliner had) and heated leading edges, which are exactly that--tubing inside the wings and stabs that conduct hot bleed air from the turbines along the metal of the airframe, which is what turbofan airliners and business jets have.

They act very differently. Heated leading can be left on all the time--at least all the time you're will to bleed some hot air (i.e. power) from the engines. Boots have to be "played"--used not too early or too late; there's an art to it.

As I remember, the ATR icing accident was caused more by loss of aileron effectiveness on one wing due to ice buildup in an area that wasn't deice-protected. It wasn't a pure loss-of-lift icing accident. In fact it was such an unexpected circumstance that as I remember the design had to be recertificated, because the original certification testing in artificial icing conditions hadn't uncovered this anomaly.

Anyway, this is an awkward example of pure speculation, which is always dangerous. Most pilots avoid it until the facts are in.

Stephan Wilkinson

Stephan Wilkinson is right: This is complex. But my basic point, made in an editorial on the Daily Beast filed Saturday, is that there are all the signs of this being an ice related crash. And that, in essence, these crashes, of which there is a sad history, are winter events. I don't feel very relaxed about a category called winter events, since the logic is that these planes don't fall out of the sky at any other time. These days, the causes of crashes have been progressively tackled by technology.

Many of the previously regular causes have been more or less eliminated: engine failure (except if birds intrude), airframe failure, navigational errors and, more recently, "controlled flight into terrain" meaning a pilot flies right into the ground--ground proximity warnings have taken care of that. Weather should not be an acceptable cause of commercial airline accidents (it is often a cause of general aviation crashes). If you look at the FAA's failure to enact measures recommended by the investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board, which happens to be staffed by real hard-nosed independent pros, which directly arise from previous crashes involving ice, you see a sad story of dereliction.

No two crashes are alike, even though they can have a common cause. In this case the problem was probably compounded by the plane being on autopilot. There are some anomalies from the flight recorders, revealing that the flaps, which should have been in landing position, did not extend properly, and erratic behavior suggesting asymmetry of some kind in the controls. Obviously knowing exactly what happened will take time, although the Safety Board has been unusually open and swift in revealing details. I remain sure of one thing: Ice was involved.

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