CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Two plane crashes that filled the news last year had dramatically different outcomes. One ended with a heroic landing that made the plane's crew national heroes. The other ended in a tragic fireball that lit up the Buffalo sky. The principal factor in the differing outcomes was the experience level of the pilots, said Jeff Skiles, first officer on Flight 1549, which landed miraculously on the Hudson River in January 2009. Skiles had 4,600 hours of flying time when he joined US Airways ( LCC) in 1986. But the captain of Continental ( CAL) Flight 3407 had flown 3,379 when the plane crashed in Buffalo the following month. "At 3,200 hours, I was flying a twin engine (cargo plane) over Kansas," Skiles said, in an interview. "That's what people with 3,000 hours did then. Now they fly passenger planes as a captain."
Skiles, vice chairman of government affairs for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, is speaking out about the differences in the two flights as the Senate prepares to consider a long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. A provision of the bill would increase minimum pilot experience standards. Skiles believes that Flight 1549 put him in position to become a stronger safety advocate, and that is what he has done, taking a particular interest in addressing the problems presented by the Buffalo crash. He wears a red ribbon and two wrist bands to commemorate the 50 people who were killed in the crash. Last month, he was part of a group that commemorated Flight 3407's first anniversary by walking 10 miles from the crash site to the airport, "completing the journey." In that ceremony, he carried a candle for the flight's captain, Marvin Renslow. Attention has focused on Renslow's three test flight failures, on First Officer Rebecca Shaw's fatigue and apparent illness and on the pair's light-hearted conversation when the flight was below 10,000 feet, in violation of safety procedures. But Skiles said those are side issues. The pilots "were victims just as much as the passengers were," he said. "There wasn't anything wrong with their airplane, but they were asked to do something their limited experience had not prepared them for."
Renslow and Shaw flew for Colgan Air, a regional contractor to Continental. While regional airlines provide an ever increasing share of U.S. domestic flying, neither required experience levels nor pilot salaries have increased. Shaw had flown just 2,200 hours. On Feb. 12, less than a month after the 150 passengers aboard Flight 1549 survived because Skiles and Captain "Sully" Sullenberger guided the airplane into the Hudson, the Continental flight stalled and crashed into a house in Buffalo. It need not have stalled, Skiles said. But a stall signal alarm sounded, because the pilots had not set it to reflect an increased projected landing speed, and the autopilot shut down in response. At that point, the pilots overreacted. "They would have had to fly by hand, but it would not have stalled," Skiles said. "It would have landed fine. Unfortunately, the pilots lacked the experience to know that." Renslow and Shaw were landing a Q400 aircraft in cold weather, and the plane's wings iced up. In such conditions, an aircraft must approach the runway at a higher speed than normal. In the Q400, the alarm goes off when the approach speed is slower than planned. The two pilots approached the runway at a higher rate than normal, but still too slowly, Skiles said. Because they had neglected to reset the alarm to reflect their higher projected landing speed, it went off unnecessarily. "That was the first mistake," he said. "It told them they were in a stall, when they were not. But the captain perceived (a stall) and reacted in a way that was contrary to the proper way to recover." The proper reaction would have been to set the nose down and add power to increase the speed. But Renslow reacted by pulling back on the yolk, attempting to force the nose up and adding partial power. "This caused the stall," Skiles said. Then, when an automatic emergency antistall device sought to push the nose down, Renslow sought to override it and lost control. Meanwhile, Shaw compounded the error by raising the flaps, further enhancing the likelihood of a stall.
Differences with Flight 1549 abound. First, "we didn't cause the problem, we had a problem foisted upon us, hitting ducks," Skiles said. "But we knew what our procedures were. We fell back on what we had been trained our entire lives to do: We drew on a well of experience to follow procedures and keep our cool." Because of Skiles' and Sullenberger's long experience, "we knew what each other was thinking," Skiles said. "We didn't do that much communication. I knew what he was doing and he knew the same for me. It comes from understanding your roles and responsibilities. In Buffalo, there was an inability to understand their respective roles in the cockpit." -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .