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Home > Air Crash > Crash of Continental Flight 3407 – Tail Stall and Icy Conditions?
Crash of Continental Flight 3407 – Tail Stall and Icy Conditions?
Aviation - Air Crash
Tuesday, 17 February 2009 11:51

Dear Capt Lim,

If the Bombardier Q400 was on autopilot and operating under icing conditions, what would be the "result" when the flaps were set for landing at about 2300 feet?

Also, if the de-icing system had been turned on 11 minutes into flight and stayed on the entire flight, why would there be ice on the wings?

Is it possible on this flight that the pilots did not know what they were doing in the operation of this aircraft under the described conditions?

Thank you!

Bill Spieler

Crash of Continental Flight 3407

Hi Bill,

This is a disclaimer to your questions as what is being discussed below are speculative only.

I am not sure if the deicing system is working fully although the NTSB says they were activated 11 minutes into the flight. The icings must be quite intense to have affected the flight controls during the approach to land that commenced at around 2300 feet.

The NTSB Officials revealed that the plane was flying on auto-pilot, which they strongly discourage in icy conditions because it can mask serious problems until it's too late. At the time of the crash, the plane had ice build-up on the windshield and wings, but there's no indication that the de-icing equipment wasn't working. It was also revealed that the plane's aerodynamic stall protection systems were automatically activated.

However, an aviation expert states that the doomed Continental flight might have suffered a "tail stall". That is the theory of Larry Mussman, a former Spirit Airlines captain and former Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector.

He thinks the horizontal stabilizer on the tail became covered with ice and “stalled.”

In aviation terms, a stall occurs when there is insufficient airflow to produce lift. In the case of Flight 3407, the tail section would have lost its ability to make the aircraft go up or down.

The plane would have gone out of control so quickly that the pilots would have had little time to react.

Yes, even though the deicing system was turned on 11 minutes into the flight I am not sure if it worked efficiently throughout the flight.

From the NTSB report, the flight data recorder indicates that the plane pitched up and down in the frantic last moments. It rolled to the left at 46 degrees and then snapped back to the right at 105 degrees – 15 degrees beyond vertical. The plane then crashed belly first onto a house.

I am not sure whether the pilots did not know what they were doing. According to Mussman, the disaster was probably the culmination of a series of complex events. It would involve icy weather, the plane’s automation systems and pilot training.

If ice was also accumulating on the tail section, the autopilot would have compensated by steadily pulling back on the control wheels. All it would have taken was for the pilots to put down the flaps to trigger the tail section to stall.

And indeed, it was moments after the pilots put down flaps at an altitude of about 1,600 feet that the plane suddenly went out of control.

To recover from a tail stall, the pilots would have needed to pull back power and yank back on the yoke as hard as possible, Mussman said.

The problem is the Dash 8 has what’s known as a T-tail, meaning that it is mounted high on the vertical fin. It doesn’t respond to control inputs as effectively as other tail sections because it’s not in the direct airflow of the engines.

Instead, pilots are trained extensively on how to recover from more common “wing” stalls, a procedure that calls for taking almost the exact opposite action as that required for a tail stall.

Watch the video above on the recreation of the Continental Air 3407 flight from New Jersey.


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