'This Is Not a Drill....'

ALPA responds to the crash of Pinnacle Flight 3701.

By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot, February 2005, p.14

The clocks are ticking through midnight, the calendars sliding from the 14th to the 15th of October 2004 as Capt. Lindsay Fenwick (Northwest) sleeps in the guest room of his friend, Capt. Paul McCarthy (Delta, Ret.), in Marblehead, Mass. The two pilots, both long-time ALPA accident investigators, have spent a productive evening working together on accident investigation issues for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations. 

All areas affecting flight safety are being examined--operations, training, aircraft systems (including powerplants), ATC, weather, maintenance, and aircraft performance.

Capt. Fenwick's slumber is interrupted by a familiar beeping. He rolls over and reaches for the pager. The text message begins, "THIS IS NOT A DRILL…." An airplane in Northwest colors has gone down; Northwest is activating its command center, but not its accident-response "Go Team" (later, the airline will launch the Go Team). 

Capt. Fenwick, a member of ALPA's Accident Investigation Board (AIB) and Chief Accident Investigator for the Northwest pilot group, calls Capt. Bob Aaron, Central Air Safety Chairman for the Northwest pilots. 

Capt. Aaron, like Capt. Fenwick, is a member of Northwest Airlines' accident response team; however, he has lent his pager to the vice-chairman of the Northwest pilots' MEC Central Air Safety Committee, so he has not received the page. Capt. Aaron is still awake, working late to answer e-mail messages in his multiple ALPA safety representative roles. 

"I don't recognize the ship number," Capt. Fenwick tells Capt. Aaron. "It's an RJ," comes the reply as Capt. Aaron reaches for the 14-page "Accident Notification Procedure" manual created by the Northwest MEC Central Air Safety Committee, with input from ALPA staff, and recently updated. "The middle of the night is no time to be groping for phone numbers," Capt. Aaron will say later. 

The somber process has begun again; the wee hours of Oct. 15, 2004, will take a number of Northwest and Pinnacle pilots, plus ALPA staff engineers, from their warm beds.

A night of phone calls 

At 1:33 a.m. EDT, Capt. Fenwick calls the ALPA Hotline. Rick Kessel is the ALPA staff engineer keeping the special Hotline cell phone with him night and day this week. Seven minutes later, Kessel, following the procedures ALPA has established for responding to an accident, calls the FAA Command Center in Washington, D.C.; the agency has no information yet on what is eventually learned to be a ferry flight, fatal to both pilots, Capt. Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Pete Cesarz. 

Kessel calls the NTSB Command Center. The Safety Board confirms that a CRJ is down in a residential area of Jefferson City, Mo. The NTSB Go Team will fly out of Washington National Airport on an FAA airplane at 7:00 a.m. 

Kessel's next calls, at 1:45 a.m. EDT, are to Capt. Aaron Rose, the Pinnacle pilots' Central Air Safety Chairman, and Capt. Dan Hesselius, their Chief Accident Investigator. Kessel leaves each a message. 

At 1:55 a.m. EDT, Kessel calls his boss, Chris Baum, manager of the Engineering and Accident Investigation section of ALPA's Engineering and Air Safety Department. At the same time, Capt. Rose returns Kessel's call on the ALPA accident/incident hotline cell phone; he says he has heard about the accident from others. 

Baum calls the NTSB 10 minutes later and confirms that the accident has occurred. The Safety Board has no other information. At 2:15 a.m. EDT, Capt. Mark Crissman, the Pinnacle pilots' Vice-Chief Accident Investigator, calls the ALPA Hotline. At about the same time, Baum calls Capt. Fenwick to make sure that each of them has the most up-to-date information. 

Baum calls Capt. Rose at 2:18 a.m. EDT and confirms that the accident has occurred. Meanwhile, Capt. Fenwick calls Kessel on the ALPA Hotline phone to check the NTSB information verifying the accident. 

At 2:20 a.m. EDT, Baum calls his boss, Keith Hagy, director of ALPA's Engineering and Air Safety Department, to advise him of the accident and ALPA's response. Twenty minutes later, Baum calls Capt. Fenwick again. 

Baum's next call, at 2:30 a.m. EDT, is to ALPA senior staff engineer Mike Huhn, asking for Huhn's help in getting the ALPA staff response to the accident started. Huhn calls back 2 minutes later. 

At 2:35 a.m. EDT, Baum calls ALPA staff engineer Pierre Huggins to assign him to the Pinnacle accident investigation. During the next 15 minutes, Huhn and Huggins, in multiple calls, work out the logistics of dispatch to the accident site-i.e., what equipment to take, the schedule, and procedures. 

Huggins spends the next half hour arranging transportation and preparing for dispatch to Jefferson City. He coordinates with the Pinnacle pilots on their arrival plans. He learns that the NTSB Investigator-in-Charge will be career NTSB staffer Bob Benzon, a familiar figure. Capt. Fenwick will represent the ALPA AIB during the investigation. Capt. Jack Wortman, the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) coordinator for the Northwest pilots' MEC, will help ALPA with on-site logistics and CIRP. 

At 2:56 a.m. EDT, Baum calls a hotel in Jefferson City to reserve 10 rooms. 

Capt. Hesselius calls the ALPA Hotline at 2:56 a.m. EDT. Two minutes later, Baum calls Capt. Rose to compare notes again. At 3:10 a.m. EDT, Baum returns Capt. Hesselius' call to coordinate the ALPA response and arrivals at Jefferson City. 

Six minutes later, Baum calls Capt. Fenwick again. Capt. Fenwick decides to also send First Officer Scott Reeves (ExpressJet), also a member of the ALPA AIB, to the field investigation for training and exposure. F/O Reeves has a strong background in military accident investigation, but this will be his first airline accident investigation. 

At 3:39 a.m. EDT, Capt. Dave Milner, a member of the Pinnacle pilots' CIRP team, calls the ALPA accident/incident hotline. Kessel gives him the Northwest MEC CIRP telephone numbers. 

(The Northwest pilots help get some of their own, plus pilots from FedEx and Pinnacle, to provide CIRP support in Pinnacle crew rooms. Moreover, the Northwest MEC mobilizes its CIRP Committee members to arrange for trained CIRP pilots to be in the deceased pilots' hometowns to help when their families learn of the accident.)

Lawyers on tap 

Dan Froehlich is the ALPA contract administrator assigned to the Pinnacle pilot group. He works out of ALPA's Minneapolis Contract Administration Office. At the moment, however, he is sound asleep with his wife in a hotel in south Florida, where the ALPA Board of Directors meeting is under way. 

Baum tries to reach Froehlich at 3:59 a.m. EDT to begin sorting out representation issues, such as supporting the pilots' next-of-kin and representing pilots called for NTSB interviews. Capt. Craig Suker wakes Froehlich at about 4 a.m. with his call. Froehlich goes into the hall to begin making his own series of calls. 

"My role was to make sure everyone had representation," Froehlich will explain months later. "I called Jim Johnson [supervising attorney in ALPA's Legal Department] to make sure we hadn't missed anything." 

(Fellow Minneapolis ALPA contract administrator Rob Plunkett normally represents the Northwest pilot group; however, he represented pilots involved in the NTSB investigation of the fatal inflight icing accident that led to the crash of ExpressOne [Pinnacle's predecessor] Flight 5719 near Hibbing, Minn., in December 1993. Because of his experience with the Hibbing investigation, Plunkett will later participate in an NTSB interview of a Pinnacle pilot as part of the Pinnacle Flight 3701 investigation.) 

At 4:04 a.m. EDT, Baum calls Capt. Rose again to compare notes. Baum calls Capt. Rob Neighbour (Mesa), chairman of ALPA's national CIRP Committee, at 4:30 a.m. EDT to notify him of the accident. 

First Officer Steve Soares, a member of the Pinnacle pilots' accident investigation team, calls the ALPA accident/incident hotline at 5:05 a.m. EDT. 

At 6:00 a.m. EDT, Huggins' flight to St. Louis, Mo., departs Washington Dulles International Airport. 

At 5:00 a.m. MST (7 a.m. EDT), Capt. Milner calls Capt. Neighbour to make sure he knows about the accident.

Field investigation 

Huggins lands in St. Louis at 7:30 a.m. CDT; 15 minutes later, Capts. Rose and Hesselius arrive. At 8:15 a.m. CDT, the three depart St. Louis for Jefferson City in a rental car. 

Between 7:40 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. CDT, Pinnacle and Northwest pilots responding to the accident arrive in St. Louis. 

At 11:15 a.m. CDT, Huggins and Capts. Rose and Hesselius arrive at the hotel in Jefferson City. The NTSB starts its organizational meeting at noon CDT. Two hours later, Capt. Fenwick and F/O Reeves arrive at the ALPA command post. 

Baum calls ALPA staff engineer Joe Bracken at 5:30 p.m. EDT to assign him to be the ALPA representative on the NTSB's Flight Data Recorder Group for this investigation. 

Two days later, Capt. Crissman, appointed ALPA's member of the NTSB's Cockpit Voice Recorder Group for the investigation, arrives at ALPA's building in Herndon, Va. ALPA staff engineer Corey Stephens briefs Capt. Crissman on NTSB procedures for reading out the CVR and on his responsibilities as a member of the ALPA CVR Group. 

Stephens also ensures that CIRP support will be available for Capt. Crissman. At 6:00 p.m. EDT, Capt. Bob Finnegan, a Northwest MEC CIRP Committee member who lives in New Hampshire, meets with Capt. Crissman. 

The next day, the NTSB's CVR and FDR Groups convene--separately--at 8:00 a.m. EDT at the Safety Board's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Capt. Crissman and Bracken participate in their respective groups. 

The Safety Board wraps up the field phase of the investigation on Oct. 20, 2004; the next day, the NTSB CVR and FDR Groups complete their work in Washington, D.C.

Keeping pilots informed 

While the CVR and FDR Groups are ending their initial work, Capt. Rose is developing a slide presentation for a "road show" designed to keep Pinnacle pilots informed about the accident investigation to the extent permitted by NTSB rules. ALPA asks the NTSB to review the presentation; the Safety Board approves it. 

Capt. Rose gives the first presentation to Pinnacle pilots at Memphis on October 22; two days later, he and Chris Baum brief pilots in Memphis again while Pierre Huggins and Capt. Hesselius give the presentation to Pinnacle pilots in Detroit. On October 25 and 27, Baum, Huggins, and Capt. Crissman put on the road show in Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

The ALPA representatives note that all areas affecting flight safety are being examined--operations, training, aircraft systems (including powerplants), ATC, weather, maintenance, and aircraft performance. As the investigation continues, they explain, several activities will take place: 

Capt. Crissman adds, "Please respect the NTSB's authority to limit discussion of the accident investigation to only within the investigative group. Parties to the investigation may not pursue separate lines of investigation. 

"We understand that all flightcrew members are intent on performing their jobs in a professional manner," Capt. Crissman stresses. 

"All pilots must respect this accident crew and wait for the investigation to be complete." 

As this magazine goes to press, ALPA continues to be deeply involved in the Pinnacle Flight 3701 investigation. Most of the fact-finding has been completed. Pilots and staff representing several aviation safety disciplines, plus ALPA's aeromedical and human factors resources, will spend many months analyzing the factual information and preparing the Association's submission to the NTSB regarding this accident. More months will pass before the Safety Board issues its official report on the accident. The field phase, while vital to the investigation, is just the beginning.