Colgan Air Flight 3407

Photo by David Duprey-Pool/Getty Images

Remembering Flight 3407, 10 Years Later

February 12, 2019 - 5:00 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Tuesday marks 10 years since a commuter jet out of Newark crashed into a house just a few miles from its destination in Buffalo. 

Continental Connection Flight 3407 left Newark Liberty International Airport at 9:18 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2009 and made it to within 10 miles of its destination in Buffalo. There was nothing remarkable about the weather with only a light snow falling at the time and the final communication between the pilot and the tower that transpired less than a minute before the crash gave no hint of any trouble.

But ice had built up on the wings and the plane began sputtering and stalling as it made its landing approach.

"Anytime that ever happens every pilot who's been trained properly knows you've gotta put the nose down and gain speed," said CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. "What happened in this case is they did just the opposite and that sealed their fate."

Nearly an hour after taking off from New Jersey, the Colgan Air-operated plane took a nosedive into a house in Clarence. Witnesses at the time said the sky was on fire. "You could see a red glow over the trees," one witness said.

All 49 people on board were killed, as well as a man inside the house.

The victims represented a remarkable cross-section of American life including a human rights activist, renowned jazz musicians and a woman who was already all too familiar with losing a loved one. 

Beverly Eckert, who lived in Stamford, Connecticut, was on her way to her late husband's hometown to give out a scholarship in his name at his high school on what would have been his birthday. Her husband, Sean Rooney, was killed in the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"Beverly never flew out of Newark, she always flew out of JFK, she had a voucher to use," her sister, Karen Eckert, said. "I said she can't be on that plane. I called her cell phone. No answer. Kept calling it, no answer, and then we knew."

"It was the most sickening feeling," she said.

The crash brought an abrupt end to Beverly's tireless work on the 9/11 Families Steering Committee.

"We all used to say we worried when we boarded a plane about who was on the plane with us we never thought that we shouldn't be maybe worried about the passengers but who was in the cockpit," Eckert said. 

Advocacy was born out of the tragedy.

"I remembered it was important just watching what Beverly and the 9/11 families had done we need to get information," Eckert said.

But the more information they got about the crash the worse they felt.

"It kind of made us sick. These issues had been known and nothing had been done about it," Eckert said.

Problems included training hours, pilot fatigue and deceptive marketing.

"The plane had 'Continental' markings, they carried tickets that read 'Continental Airlines' on it, many may have been receiving Continental Airlines frequent flier miles and yet the plane was not operated by Continental nor was it operating under stricter FAA rules for commercial big airlines, it was operating under commuter airline rules."

"Beverly didn't fly on a Continental plane or a Continental flight. Even though it said Continental Flight 3407 we found out it was flown by a small airline company called Colgan Airline. Colgan Airline trained the pilots, hired the pilots, paid the pilots and Continental Airlines had nothing to do with this. We found it was a far lower standard of safety than it ever would of been had Continental pilots had actually been flying that plane," Eckert said.

According to the ensuing NTSB investigation, the pilots were under trained and sleep deprived.

"The pilot had failed many of his proficiency tests and was still allowed to fly while he was going to retake those tests," Greenberg said. The co-pilot, Greenberg said, was making an average salary equivalent to a greeter at Walmart and couldn't afford to live in the community where she was based. She had flown into Newark from Seattle earlier in the day. 

The families' grief turned into action. They took dozens of trips to Washington to bring about change and prevent future tragedies.

"I stopped counting after 70 trips in the 10 years," Eckert said. "We just had to keep coming and coming and show the personal face of what happens when you make a boardroom decision to cut a corner."

When the families came together one of the people they went to was a pilot named Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot in the "Miracle on the Hudson." "Skiles became their advocate to lobby the FAA to strengthen the rules and change the requirements so if you're going to sit in the co-pilot seat of a commuter airline you have to have better training and more experience," Greenberg said.

Since the crash, minimum experience hours have gone from 250 to 1,500, better stall training and more stringent rest rules have gone into place. After two decades averaging a major crash every 17 months, Eckert said that since the crash there has not been a fatal crash on a U.S. airline. But with pilots in short supply, Greenberg said lobbyists are always trying to get those rules relaxed.

Greenberg said commuter airlines are quietly lobbying the FAA to reduce the requirements and go back to where we were 10 years ago in order for them to stay in business rather than increase pilot training and salary.

"We're certainly much safer today than we were then because those restrictions are still in place," Greenberg said. "The real question here is can we maintain that level of safety and if they reduce the required hours my concern is we won't be able to maintain it."

But Eckert said that'll never happen under the watch of the Families of Flight 3407.

"It's sad beyond belief but we just want their deaths not to be in vain," Eckert said.

Families of the victims of Flight 3407 will hold a memorial service and then participate in a candlelight walk to the crash site where they will read the names of all those who lost their lives and lay a wreath.