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Pilots are leading the charge for more training

Complaining the most about a lack of experience by some airline pilots, particularly those flying for regional carriers, are a group who might know best: the pilots themselves.

“It’s ridiculous,’’ said a pilot at a large regional carrier about his training that never mandated him to get a plane to recover from a spin.

Since the crash earlier this year of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which cost 50 people their lives, a growing chorus of safety experts has been complaining that the level of training the plane’s two pilots went through to fly for the airline was simply inadequate to deal with sudden emergencies.

Inside the industry, there is a “quantity versus quality’’ debate under way, as some push for a dramatic increase in the number of flying hours’ experience needed for a pilot to get the right to fly passengers through the skies. Others, though, say adding more hours will not help unless a whole new group of standards – say, being able to demonstrate an ability to recover from a spin or how to land on water – are incorporated in pilot training programs.

Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot on the US Airways plane that successfully landed on the Hudson River earlier this year, believes the airlines have relaxed their standards in who they hire as pilots.

Skiles aims much of his criticism at the regional carriers, those smaller, passenger feeder airlines that have become crucial partners for the major carriers. Many pilots believe the major airlines should be responsible for the pilots hired by the regionals, especially since those lucrative "code sharing'' contracts permit the regionals to fly under the name of the larger, well-known “legacy’’ carrier.

Skiles talks of the position facing many regional airline captains sitting in the left seat of the small jets and turboprop planes flying across the country today. He characterizes many such regional airline captains as “fairly inexperienced’’ who fly sitting next to someone in the right seat with what he believes is just a blip of experience. “It’s just not a good experience at all,’’ he says.

But, pilots say, there is a two-tier system operating in the skies. Skiles recently attended a National Business Aviation Association convention, a gathering of executives involved in an industry that flies corporate leaders on private aircraft.

The convention came as debate heated up over whether a law should be enacted requiring 1,500 hours’ experience before a pilot can get a license to work for an airline. “It was a non-issue,’’ Skiles said of talk at the convention over the pending federal legislation. “They said we’d not think of hiring someone without thousands of hours’ experience to fly our CEOs around.’’

“Airlines used to be the top of the heap. Now, it’s corporate aviation,’’ he said.

The problems with pilot training standards are many, and deep, according to dozens of pilots, crash investigators, safety experts, air traffic controllers, mechanics and flight instructors interviewed the past several months by the Buffalo News.

They run from the types of problems pilots do not get trained to handle -- such as icing, which many regional carriers taught their pilots to deal with by showing them a half-hour video – to an over-reliance on automation devices in today’s cockpits that are making some pilot skills rusty.

Will things improve?

Industry insiders say the time is finally here where pilot training is now a front-burner issue. They point to the crash of Flight 3407 as the impetus to get the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to – maybe – raise the floor for pilot training standards to increase the odds that a pilot, as in the Clarence crash, does not have the exact opposite reaction to get out of an aerodynamic stall.

But one former crash investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board was not holding his breath. There have been other crashes, he said, that were supposed to serve as an impetus for change, but then were forgotten over time. The former investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted how the NTSB years ago called on the FAA to make recovery from unusual upsets – such as turbulence tossing a plane upside down in the sky like a toy – mandatory.

“It’s been a major disappointment to the NTSB,’’ he said of the lack of action on that issue. Instead, like many safety issues, the extent to which a procedure is given hands-on training can vary by the airline.

Safety experts criticize a culture that, unlike the military, encourages marginal pilots with so-so skills to get the various licenses along the way, including the Airline Transport Pilot certificate that allows them to be a pilot-in-charge – a captain – for a commercial airliner. They talk of tests that are so structured and so well-known in advance that they end up being like open-book exams.

“They should be looking at the whole training system, so pilots are not getting through by a wink and a nod,’’ the former crash investigator said.

Paul Onorato calls many regional airline pilots “neophytes building experience with peoples’ lives at stake.’’

“I don’t want somebody to say 'I haven’t seen icing' flying into Buffalo in the wintertime,’’ said Onorato, a pilot for a major airline and president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association.

Gone are the days when the military served as initial proving grounds for future airline pilots, as was the case with Onorato, who was a Navy combat pilot during the first Gulf War. Gone are many other such on-the-job training avenues that give fledgling pilots a chance to build up skills -- without passengers in the back of their planes. Onorato noted, for instance, how many pilots got their skills working for banks ferrying canceled checks around the country. The drive to electronic banking may be a help for banks and consumers, but it has helped close yet another avenue for pilot training.

That leaves more and more young pilots going straight from flight school or a college program to the right seat of a regional airline. “It’s a big jump going from a Cessna to a regional jet,’’ Onorato said.

“It’s an apprenticeship program,’’ Onorato said of how the airline industry looks at the role of regional airlines and their pilots.

Walt Rouse recalls getting his instrument rating license having never flown in a cloud. Rouse, a retired aviation professor at a North Carolina college attended by Marvin Renslow, the Flight 3407 captain, was in the Air Force when he learned to fly in cloud-less Arizona. “I used to ask the instructors to let me fly through a cloud,’’ he recalled.

After a career in aviation, Rouse believes it’s about time pilots are given better training to deal with things like weather conditions and get far more time sitting in the right seat as first officers before being allowed to captain an airliner.

After all his hours flying, Rouse has only been on a regional airline plane once. Do they make him nervous? "I don’t know that I would be real hesitant to fly on a commuter plane, but I’d be watching the pilots,'' Rouse said.

--- Tom Precious

Like him or loathe him, Mohan was always accessible to the media


   Amherst  Supervisor Satish Mohan is one of those political figures for whom it is nearly impossible to have a neutral opinion, if you've ever met the man.

   As a reporter who covered Mohan for his last 2 1/2 years in office, I was neither for him nor against him (something that I had to go great lengths to explain to him on more than one occasion). However, I can say that as a source for my stories I will miss him.

   Mohan possessed some admirable qualities as a source. Short of any legal impediment, he gave me any information I asked for. His administrators spoke with me freely and never said, "I have to ask the boss if it's OK."

   His natural personality also ensured lively and open debate of public issues in council chambers. While some boards negotiate away dissent and disagreement behind closed doors, Mohan's seat on the Amherst Town Board kept meetings interesting.

   I wrote many stories about Mohan of which I know he disapproved, but he was never vindictive and didn't call my desk to complain. Only once, when The News did a midterm survey and evaluation of his tenure, did he make a big issue of my work.

   He answered my questions and never directed his secretaries to first find out why I was calling. This is an underrated quality that most of us in journalism wished more politicians possessed. Even when I asked questions that he thought were ridiculous, or would inevitably make him look quite bad, he was rarely evasive, and he never refused to answer. Neither would he avoid my calls the next day.

   I once told him I appreciated this responsiveness. He answered simply, "I have to. You represent the public."

   If only all politicians thought that way.

   With a new supervisor and new Town Board ready to be seated in January, I can only hope they will give government openness, accessibility and transparency the same level of commitment and respect.

--- Sandra Tan

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Twitter

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Live blogging today's storm

Bus accident_003

We'll be following today's winter storm all day, giving updates and passing along reports from staffers as they come in. Here's the latest on the storm. Get the latest forecast and live radar here.

Noon: Buffalo police officers are shutting down the Skyway in both directions because of blowing snow, said police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge. It will be closed for an undetermined amount of time.

--Lou Michel

12:22 p.m.: The Web site for Buffalo Niagara International Airport has been experiencing high volume this morning, causing them to display the more basic mobile version of their site. Right now the departures page shows a couple of cancellations and a couple delays; the arrivals page is showing one cancellation.

12:27 p.m.: The BPO just announced a special: show up at the Kleinhans box office in person while it is snowing, and you get $10 off Holiday Pops tickets.

--Mary Kunz Goldman

12:29 p.m.: Conditions are gorgeous and sunny up in Wilson in Niagara County.

--Nancy Fischer

Bus accident_002

12:36 p.m.: News photographer Harry Scull Jr. has been out in the elements this morning, including the scene of an early-morning bus accident on the Thruway. Nine people were sent to the hospital, but none of their injuries were considered life-threatening. See more of Harry's photos here.

12:49 p.m.: Both NYSEG and National Grid continue to report some power outages across Western New York.

12:53 p.m.: The wind off Lake Erie was so strong at 12:30 p.m. that the destroyer the USS The Sullivans, the USS Little Rock and the submarine USS Croaker were all pulling at their mooring lines.

1:05 p.m.: I was conducting an interview on a sunny, clear Elmwood Avenue at 11:30. But as I drove down Delaware Avenue toward downtown, it became a whiteout. Traffic was creeping.

-- Samantha Maziarz Christmann

1:18 p.m.: Attention skiers: Today is opening day for Holiday Valley and Peek 'n Peak. Also, The News' Fletcher Doyle reports that Bristol Mountain re-opened today after a Wednesday power outage forced it to close. Fletcher gives the latest updates here.

One news plaza

1:30 p.m.: At the Tim Hortons on Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo, the wind was blowing so hard the drive-thru speaker was rocking back and forth big-time. But it was still working. Whew. On the drive down the 190 to One News Plaza, you could see one car in front of you, but the rest was all white.

--Keith McShea

1:39 p.m.: Gene Warner has updated our main story about today's weather. This update from National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Pukajlo, speaking about the storm's return to the city around noon, is especially worth noting: "It's probably going to be up here for a few hours, before it shifts south again." As Gene puts it: "That forecast suggested that the afternoon rush hour, especially toward the south, could be a low-visibility nightmare."

1:49 p.m.: For high schools, the general rule is, if there's no school, there's no sports. We do know that the Federation hockey game between Canisius and Niagara-Wheatfield is on for 7 p.m. at the Amherst Pepsi Center. More here.

--Keith McShea

2:02 p.m.: Reports from Olean are that the St. Bonaventure-Le Moyne game is still on for 7 tonight in the Reilly Center.

2:11 p.m.: Buffalo figures prominently in the Associated Press' storm roundup moving on the wires at this hour. The story, which covers the storm's impact across the country, carries a Buffalo dateline and the byline of one of the AP's Buffalo writers — as well as some color from Western New York.

2:20 p.m.: While their teammates practiced inside the fieldhouse in Orchard Park, Bills kicker Rian Lindell, punter Brian Moorman and long snapper Garrison Sanborn practiced outside during the snow with special teams coach Bobby April.

Moorman didn't seem too pleased about the prospect of practicing punts in drifting snow and 25 degrees (feels like 7) temperatures, but April told him with a smile: "You're not at Pittsburg State anymore."

It was 24 degrees and sunny in Pittsburg, Kan., on Thursday.

(On a non-weather-related note, Chris Kelsay didn't practice.)

-- Rodney McKissic

2:28 p.m.: Road Less Traveled Productions says they'll stay open tonight for their production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Road Less Traveled Artistic Director Scott Behrend: "They'd pretty much have to close the city down before we'd cancel a show."

--Colin Dabkowski

2:35 p.m.: This evening's Carly's Club holiday event scheduled for 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center has been rescheduled for Monday.

The event brings together pediatric cancer patients and survivors for a holiday gathering. More than 400 were expected for the event, which was to include sleigh rides around Niagara Square, dancing, music and a visit from Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman and Santa Claus.

2:47 p.m.: The Larkin at Exchange office building in Buffalo closed at 2 p.m. because of a power outage, forcing all employees and day care children out of the building.

--Sandra Tan

2:53 p.m.: Most interesting snow total of the day: East Aurora got 6.5 inches of snow; Wales, right next door, got 1.5 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

--Bruce Andriatch

3:04 p.m.: Like Road Less Traveled, the show will go on at Alleyway Theatre, where "A Christmas Carol" opens tonight. Alleyway founder and Artistic Director Neal Radice: "Our policy is unless the City of Buffalo declares a driving ban, the show goes on."

--Colin Dabkowski

Delaware

3:07 p.m.: A look above at snow-covered Delaware Avenue in the city at around 12:30 p.m. from The News' Dan Kirchberger.

3:25 p.m.: Driving on the outbound Kensington Expressway shortly before 3 p.m. was a white-knuckle experience. Traffic was traveling below 30 mph on the stretch of the 33 heading out of the city to Parkside. On Parkside, blowing snow from Delaware Park was an issue. Up on Hertel Avenue, the driving wasn't too bad. At Elmwood and St. James Place at about 3:15 p.m., there was light snowfall and some blowing snow.

--Joe Popiolkowski

3:30 p.m.: Gene Warner has again updated our main weather story, and there's (predictably) bad news for commuters. "It's going to be a very slow commute unless the weather improves drastically," said Mike Smith, operations manager for the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition, which monitors area traffic.

3:34 p.m.: A News staffer calls in to report that the eastbound Thruway in the Hamburg area is a parking lot because of an accident near Exit 56.

3:40 p.m.: All state, county and Buffalo city court activity ended at 3:30 p.m.

--Matt Gryta

3:53 p.m.: The late-afternoon commute from Amherst to downtown on the Kensington was slow and plodding, but devoid of surprises, with most drivers exercising caution. Downtown streets, full of ruts, drifts and challenge, were in sore need of a plow.

--Randy Rodda

Niagara thruway

3:57 p.m.: The snow has let up downtown, but the traffic is crawling on the Niagara Thruway near the Elm Street exit (seen here from The News).

Skyway plows 

Skyway

4:08 p.m.: Plows (seen in the top photo) have been the only vehicles on the Skyway so far this afternoon, though the snow has let up downtown for the moment. 

4:10 p.m.: Our staffer stuck in traffic on the Thruway reports that the accident, right at Exit 56 (Blasdell) and affecting eastbound traffic, appears to have been cleared. He reports that traffic has just begun to move — albeit very slowly.

4:15 p.m.: A caller says he's stuck in traffic on South Park Avenue — always a popular alternate route for downtown commuters headed south — and that cars aren't moving. 

Drive-time snow

4:18 p.m.: News photographer John Hickey sets the scene in the Northtowns, on Colvin Boulevard  in Tonawanda.

4:30 p.m.: Not surprisingly, Twitter, Facebook and other social media are filled with references to the storm, poor driving conditions and savoring the simple pleasure of a mug of hot cocoa.

The storm-related tweets included:

"Tifft cabin feels like an Antarctica research facility today," from "philminkler" at 8 a.m.

"[D]owntown #Buffalo just turned suddenly into an episode of Ice Road Truckers," from "buffalopundit" at noon.

And this photo from "TechieLady" who asked, at about 2:20 p.m., "Now who said they wanted me to send them some of this snow?????"

--Stephen T. Watson

4:35 p.m.: A News staffer coming in from Tonawanda via the Niagara Thruway south started getting delayed at the Niagara Street exit. Getting from the Niagara Street exit to the Elm Street exit took 45 minutes.

4:36 p.m.: Our staffer coming from the Southowns via the Thruway says things are back to a standstill near Exit 56 (Blasdell).

4:55 p.m.: Tonight's 7 p.m. concert at the Ninth Ward, featuring indie rock band The Pines, has been postponed. Date TBA.

--Colin Dabkowski

5:01 p.m.: The Buffalo Niagara International Airport's Web site (still operating in mobile mode) shows seven departures canceled since noon. The picture is just as ugly for arrivals.

BABIS SWARTZ

5:05 p.m.: News photographer John Hickey found Time Warner Cable employees Phil Babison (on the ground) and Tony Swartz braving the elements to do line work on Engelwood in Tonawanda.

5:11 p.m.: Traffic is moving well in both directions on the Niagara Thruway from downtown Buffalo north.

--Dan Herbeck

5:16 p.m.: The Western New York Coalition for the Homeless has issued a Code Blue, which goes into force when temperatures fall to 10 degrees or when wind chill is 0 or lower. The coalition reports that the Belle Center at 104 Maryland St. on the West Side will be the city's only warming center tonight. It's open and will provide food and shelter from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Liberty

5:31 p.m.: Here's a shot from the top of the Liberty Building as the storm moved in today.

5:33 p.m.: The view from One News Plaza: The Niagara Thruway is moving at full speed, but the Skyway remains off-limits.

5:41 p.m.: Still no good news to report from our stranded staffer on the eastbound Thruway just before Exit 56. He first checked in at 3:34 p.m., about 150 feet from the Milestrip Road bridge over the Thruway. He planned to get off of the Thruway at Exit 56 (just past the Milestrip bridge) as soon as he was able. Well, more than two hours later, he still hasn't gotten there.

5:47 p.m.: If you're in your office downtown and dreading a trek to the Southtowns, you know that the Skyway's closing means that many of the alternate routes are jammed. But here's a route south that worked for one Southowns-bound caller we just spoke with: Exchange Street to Van Rensselear to Elk to Bailey to McKinley to Abbott.

5:50 p.m.: Coming down Elmwood through downtown, no major problems. Just a bit slower because of some slippery streets.

--Joe Popiolkowski

6:02 p.m.: An update from the Thruway Authority: The injury accident at Exit 56 that we've been writing about has now been partially cleared. The left lane in the eastbound direction is now open; the right lane remains blocked. This is happening at milepost 432.5.

6:37 p.m.: Keep up to date on the latest weather info here. Right now, it looks like we're in store for a cold Friday, but not as much snow — maybe.

7:02 p.m.: We're going to wind down the live blog for the evening, but stay with www.buffalonews.com for updates throughout the night. And don't forget to check out our gallery of staff photos from today's storm.

A columnist's post-9/11 encounter with woman in Woods scandal

UCHITEL

The name sounded familiar, but I could not at first place it.

Early reports in the wake of Tiger Woods's bizarre car crash last week included the allegation of an affair with a New York nightclub hostess named Rachel Uchitel. She vehemently denied it, saying that the story was sold by a disgruntled acquaintance to the National Enquirer.

Then I saw an interview with Uchitel's mother in Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. It mentioned that her daughter had an emotional collapse after losing her fiance in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That is when it hit me.

Uchitel cries I spent the better part of the week after the attack in New York covering the story. One of the columns I wrote dealt with loved ones of the missing who, for days after the tragedy, haunted hospitals and train stations. They posted photos of the victim in public places throughout Manhattan, in the faint hope that the person was hurt or disoriented, but had survived.

One of the people I interviewed, outside of Bellevue Hospital, was an attractive woman in her 20s. Rachel Uchitel's then-fiance, Andy O'Grady, worked on the 104th floor of the WTC.

"I don't feel like I've lost my connection with him," she told me. "If he was dead, I think I would have."

I remember feeling incredibly sorry for her, and for all of the others who — days after
the attack — were still understandably unable to accept what by then was obvious: Their husband or wife, brother or sister, fiance or friend was dead.

I was not happy to see her name associated with the Woods story, particularly in an unflattering — and purportedly untrue — way.

But it was nice to know that she had emotionally recovered from that awful day, and moved ahead with life.

   — Donn Esmonde