The Buffalo Crash: The Weather or the Plane?

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Harry Scull Jr -The Buffalo News / AP

Firefighters spray water on the firey site where a commuter flight crashed into a home in Buffalo, New York, on Feb. 12, 2009, killing 49

As investigators begin their work at the crash site of Continental 3407, they will be looking at several factors, including the history of the plane and the weather.

In September 2007, shortly after TIME ran a story about the apparently successful return of speedy turboprop planes for short commuter flights, the manufacturer of the Q400, the same type of plane that crashed in suburban Buffalo last night, requested that all such aircraft with at least 10,000 cycles (a single cycle is a take-off and a landing) be grounded for inspection. Bombardier said it was a precautionary move after two accidents (one in Denmark, the other in Lithuania, both involving aircraft owned by SAS) involving its bestselling Q400 in a space of three days. In January 2008, SAS, which suffered a third Q400 accident, said it had examined its planes' landing gear and that a preliminary Danish Accident Investigation Board had concluded that a construction error was behind the first two accidents. Denying it was responsible for those accidents, SAS added that a valve that was the focus of the accident report "is currently being modified by the supplier." It asked for $77 million in compensation from Bombardier and stopped flying the Q400.The Canadian manufacturer, at that time, released a statement saying that it would not comment until a final report was issued. In March 2008, SAS and Bombardier settled their dispute; part of the settlement included Bombardier delivering more planes to SAS, including 14 Q400s. Other companies have continued to fly the Q400. A spokesman for Bombardier says the Q400 has an "exemplary" safety and reliability record and that 220 Q400s are currently in operation.(See "Early Scenes from the 3407 Crash".)

Weather may have been a factor in the Buffalo incident. According to, at the time of the crash, winds were gusting up to 25 mph, visibility was down to three miles because of snow and other planes at the same time "reported a bit of ice on their wings." (See "Plane Crash in the Hudson River".)

What follows is the August 23, 2007 TIME story by Coco Masters about the return of a new breed of turbo props to the airline industry, including the Bombardier Q400:

Road warriors grown accustomed to regional jets on commuter hops flinch at the idea of a turboprop. Perhaps it's that sensation of being crammed into a flying matchbox while a man inside your head uses a jackhammer to tunnel his way out. (Read President Obama's statement on the tragic crash.)

But airlines' changing dynamics mean that you are going to be seeing more propellers from your window seat. Relax, the ride is getting a lot better. A new breed of six-bladed turboprops like Bombardier's Q400 — jet fast but even quieter — is leading a revival. Carriers are taking advantage of the new turbos' more efficient fuel burn, reduced cabin noise, increased capacity and comfort and greater speed compared with previous models. (Archive: Crash of Comair Flight 5191.)

From Europe's largest regional airline, Flybe, to the commuter partner of Continental, airlines have ordered 131 so far this year, more than doubling last year's orders. Bombardier's deliveries of its Q Series turboprop (Q stands for quiet) were up 71% last year. And Europe's ATR was in a death spiral when the market gave it lift; ATR's sales jumped 100% for its 42-seater (ATR 42-500) and 157% for its 72-seater (ATR 72-500).

The rocketing price of jet fuel has prompted the industry to rethink its jets- first strategy on short-haul routes (less than 500 miles, or about 800 km). Seattle-based regional carrier Horizon Air, owned by Alaska Air, was a hard sell on the Q400 until it couldn't get deliveries of the CRJ-700, a 70-seater regional jet, from the Canadian company. So Horizon grudgingly ordered 12 turboprops, and the airline hasn't looked back. "We found out very quickly that the Q400 was a completely different animal," says Pat Zachweija, until recently a top executive at Alaska Air Group. Horizon, with 33, has the most Q400s of any fleet in North America and expects to have 48--70% of its fleet--by 2009. "The economics were there," he says. "And as fuel goes up, we just look smarter and smarter." The Q400 might allow the regional to go up against low-cost, short-haul king Southwest and its fleet of Boeing 737s.

Bombardier and ATR figured out how to quiet the beast, although the Q400's 15-second drone on takeoff caused a recent flyer to initially doubt the improved 76-seater. Once the plane is cruising, though, Bombardier's noise-and-vibration-reduction system (cousin to technology used in submarines) monitors sound levels through microphones inside the plane walls. A computer initiates vibrations through special absorbers to counter those from the propellers, reducing the resonance of the airframe and hushing the cabin about 4 db quieter than many jets. ATR upgraded its four-blade propeller to a six-blade fiber-composite one with a smaller diameter that generates less vibration and cabin noise when coupled with other noise-dampening features.

Then there's the green card: the $24 million Q400 burns from 30% to 40% less fuel than--and emits half the CO2 of--a 70-seater regional jet and offers up to eight more seats. ATR says its light, $18 million 72-seater goes further, consuming 30% less fuel than the Q400 and 50% less than a regional jet.

Airlines and manufacturers are optimistic that today's turboprop runs will make the never-before-seen 500 production mark--ATR thinks it can crack $1 billion in sales next year. Bombardier is working on the Q400X, a 90-seater, which would be the largest turboprop in the world, to compete quietly with even bigger jets. As turbos continue to make noise in aviation, at least it's no longer the kind we've always expected. PROP-U-LAR Worldwide orders for turboprop aircraft with 20 to 90 seats