Two catastrophic fatal airplane accidents, occurring just months apart in 2009 and both blamed on pilot error, have led to a recent change in how pilots should be trained to deal with a potentially deadly circumstance.

On February 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed just outside of Buffalo, NY. Forty nine people on board and one person on the ground died. On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, killing all 228 people on board. While one fatal airplane crash involved a smaller commuter aircraft and the other involved a large commercial airliner, both incidents had something in common: the pilots failed to respond properly when their aircrafts stalled in mid-flight.

Fatal Plane Crashes Due to the Same Pilot Error

During final approach in the Buffalo flight, with the autopilot engaged, the captain was warned that the aircraft was slowing to dangerous speeds. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the captain responded with a series of incorrect actions and decisions, leading to the aircraft stalling and crashing to the ground.

In the case of the Air France flight, the plane climbed to 38,000 feet when, according to a report by France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis, the plane’s stall warning went off. The plane eventually stalled, and then plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. Investigators concluded that the pilot in this accident also responded incorrectly to the stall warnings, pulling the aircraft’s nose up rather than pushing it down as pilots should in such circumstances.

In response to the Buffalo crash, U.S. legislators required that all new airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flying before being hired. But the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year released additional recommendations for changing the way pilots are trained to handle stall situations. Shortly thereafter, reacting to the Air France disaster, the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association did the same.

Recommendations for Improved Pilot Training

Highlights of these new pilot training procedure recommendations include:

  • Incorporating the “startle” factor into pilots’ training. Pilots may react well to stall warnings during simulator training, but still not be prepared for correct maneuvers during a real incident. Pilots and flight crews should be better trained to suppress the startle response and remain calm during times of such unexpected emergencies.
  • Training that is specific to the student, to match their individual level of skill and experience.
  • Including more realistic scenarios that pilots will encounter, including the aircraft stalling while the autopilot is engaged.

While there are many reasons for aviation accidents, pilot error – due to poor training, incorrect decisions or miscalculations – remains the leading cause. Proper investigations of any plane crash, therefore, must include a detailed examination of a pilot’s training, as well as his or her actions in response to a crisis.