(July 2011) On Feb. 12, 2009, A Bombardier Q400 (a modernized Dash 8) operated by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo, New York, claiming the lives of 50 people. In the intervening years the fallout from the disaster has had a sweeping impact on aviation regulation in the United States, arguably more than any other accident in the past 25 years. (The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are not classified as accidents.) As a result of the Buffalo mishap, the government has enacted or proposed a number of new rules or changes to rules on everything from pilot fatigue to minimum ATP qualifications.
One of the changes that has already taken effect is the way that examiners grade stalls on a check ride. At issue is how we teach stall recoveries, how we grade pilot performance on the maneuver and what unintended lessons pilots might come away with after training.
As many of you know, the Colgan flight had just been cleared for the approach to Buffalo International on a dark night with some icing having been reported by the pilots of other airplanes in the terminal area. As the Q400 leveled off, the captain, who was the pilot flying, failed to add sufficient power to keep the airspeed from bleeding off excessively. The stick shaker, which alerts the pilot to a coming stall, came alive. Moments later, the stick pusher, designed to force the nose over to prevent a stall, activated as well. According to data from the airplane’s digital flight data recorder, power was increased to around 75 percent, though standard operating procedures call for maximum power for a stall recovery.
However, the thing that likely doomed the flight is that the pilot, instead of lowering the nose, pulled back on the elevator, ignoring the stick shaker. He then, seconds later, overpowered the stick pusher, which is designed to allow the pilot to do just that but not without great exertion.
Tragically, the result was all too predictable. The airplane stalled, went out of control and then crashed. Everyone on the airplane was killed, as was one resident of the house into which the airplane crashed.
Now, the impulse for a pilot to pull up when an airplane starts to stall is a natural one, one that, like relying on our inner ear’s sense of up and down in instrument conditions, has to be consciously overcome. This is something we learn to do very early in our pilot training. We’ve all been taught since our initial lessons that, when the first sign of the stall comes, you reduce the angle of attack and add power. Goodbye stall. But in the process, you might lose some altitude. If you catch the stall early enough, and that’s what a stick shaker is intended to do, the loss of altitude will almost certainly be minimal.