Yes, the Dash 8 Q400 airplane and its siblings in the Bombardier line of Dash 8 turboprops are highly regarded airplanes, despite the landing gear problems that were associated with three non-fatal crashes in Scandinavia in the fall of 2007.
And clearly, wing-ice has emerged as the probable primary cause of the horrific crash that killed 50 near Buffalo Thursday night on a Continental Airlines flight operated by Pinnacle Airlines subsidiary Colgan Air.
So here are the major lines of inquiry as I see it:
1. Big turboprops apparently are more susceptible to icing -- which of course makes operational changes in a wing's shape and attack -- than jets. Let's have a close look at de-icing systems on the Q400, which have already been flagged by the FAA.
2. Maintenance: the next big story in commercial aviation. Who maintains the fleet, and where? Across the board, regional airlines, squeezed hard by the majors for whom they fly, have been slashing costs. Follow the money.
3. Following the money, who flies these airplanes, and under what conditions? You don't have to press very hard to find underpaid regional jet pilots who grab a miserable night's sleep in the terminal before hauling themselves back into the cockpit for the next shift -- which is then flown in technical adherence to the law.
Look at the working conditions of the crews of our regional airline system and tell me how confident you feel getting on a flight on a windy, icy night. (Or how confident they feel).
The pilot of the 74-seat Dash 8 that crashed near Buffalo was Marvin D. Renslow, 47, employed by Colgan since September 2005. The first officer was Rebecca Lynne Shaw, 24, who was hired by Colgan a little over a year ago.
According to data from IAG AirInsight, Colgan Q400 captains make about $58,000 a year. First officers (co-pilots) make ... are you ready? ... $27,000 a year.
Here's some interesting background in an e-mail from Michael Ciasullo, the managing director of IAG:
"Pilots will fly about 6-7 hours on days when they are scheduled to fly. This is called block time and is measured from the t, Pilots' formally scheduled flight time "is measured from the time they leave the gate until they pull into the arrival gate at their destination.
However, there is another thing called duty day and that is essentially from the time the pilot leaves the hotel in the morning until they get to their hotel at
night. This can make the work day up to 14 hours long. Your pay is based off
block time so as soon as you pull into the gate the pay clock stops but you
still have to sit and wait to fly the plane to the next destination. You
don't get paid for sitting in the terminal or waiting.
So, in summary, their 'off time' can be up to double their actual flying
time on the days they fly; pilots don't fly every day. They will do 6-7-8
hours a day for 2-3 days in a row maybe three times a month. All adding up
to about 75 hours or so. Pilot are limited to 1,000 hours per year of flying
by the FAA."
And therein, folks, lies a hell of a story.