Weekly Feature

2018-01-17 / Front Page

Safest aviation year on record due to pilot requirements, say 3407 families


It has been nearly a decade since Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center, killing 50 people and igniting a national debate over the need to strengthen aviation safety rules and to advocate for more pilot training.

Earlier this month, the Aviation Safety Network reported a total of 10 fatal aircraft accidents last year. There were 44 occupant fatalities and 35 people on the ground.

Yet, the agency reported no fatalities on commercial passenger jets in 2017 and noted that last year was the single safest in modern aviation history, both by the number of fatal accidents as well as in terms of fatalities.

The Families of Flight 3407 believe there’s an obvious reason as to why.

“The record speaks for itself,” said Jennifer West, whose husband, Ernie, died in the crash. “I don’t know why [lawmakers] want to get complacent and tweak things here and there and think it will be OK.”

The Flight 3407 families have campaigned relentlessly on behalf of reform, which culminated in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, a bill that included a number of provisions intended to raise the bar for pilot training. Among the provisions is a requirement that both pilots and copilots have 1,500 hours of flight experience before flying a commercial airliner.

In July, family members descended upon the Capitol as the Senate Commerce Committee debated proposed changes to the law that would allow for more flexibility within the 1,500-hour requirement for pilot training.

Advocates of the changes say reform is needed in order to upgrade air service as airlines find it increasingly difficult to serve smaller communities because they can’t hire enough pilots with the amount of experience necessary under current law. An FAA advisory committee in September also supported changing the 1,500-hour rule.

The families have spoken out in staunch opposition to any proposals that might weaken the bill they fought so hard to achieve following the Flight 3407 tragedy. They recently sent a formal letter to the White House, asking for a pledge from President Trump that would ensure the safety reforms remain unchanged.

“As another holiday season passes for us with an empty chair at our tables, we call on you to honor their memory by preserving these critical safety standards that were paid for in blood,” it reads in part.

West and many other Flight 3407 family members are gearing up for a return trip to the Capitol next month for the ninth anniversary of the crash.

“We like to make a showing to let [lawmakers] know that this is not going to be forgotten. We usually have handouts so that they can put a face to the name, so that our loved ones just aren’t statistics,” she said. “You don’t realize until you’re there the inner workings of special interest groups in Congress. Each year you think, when is this going to be over? How many more times do we have to come here?”

An FAA internal investigation concluded that the Flight 3407 crash was at least partly due to pilot error. In the months that followed, it was discovered that the flight’s pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, had not informed his employers in regard to previously failed flight tests, information not readily available due to the lack of an all-encompassing database for pilots.

Ken Mellett, who lost his son, Cole, in the crash, was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the Pilot Records Database, which allows air carriers to check the background and training of pilots before they’re hired. The online database enables carriers to see information regarding a pilot’s employment history, training and certification.

“The database was developed so as to make their entire history available and to make it indelible. With that flight, there was a real question on the capabilities and the background of the pilots,” Mellett said. “Captain Renslow, although he had a number of flight hours, had not revealed his full background. The president of Pinnacle Airlines [former parent company of Colgan Air], Phil Trenary, when he was testifying on the Hill, said that if they knew then what they know now, they never would have hired him.”

Mellett believes that the current pilot training requirements in place are a necessary burden for airlines and that the bill has irrevocably transformed flight safety for the better.

“From the time that our bill was passed, there have been no commercial airline fatalities in the U.S. I equate it to the discovery of electricity,” he said. “We now flip a switch and the lights come on. When our bill was signed, that was the flipping of the switch.”

The focus of the families now shifts toward their anniversary trip to the Capitol next month, when the delegation hopes to hold meetings with lawmakers representing Western New York, and meet with Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, for an update on the Pilot Record Database. The group also hopes for a sit-down meeting with Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation.

West knows that despite the cost and logistical burden of trips back and forth to Washington, D.C., the potential benefits far outweigh the costs in reminding the nation of the importance of flight safety.

“It’s something that we can do to make sure this never happens again,” she said. “Our loved ones gave lives to save other lives. I couldn’t be there on the plane to hold my husband’s hand when it was going down, so this is my way of making sure his legacy lives on.”

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