FEDS PROBE COMAIR-TOWER CONVERSATIONS FOR CLUES

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 28, 2006
By David Hirschman

All conversation between the pilots of Comair Flight 5191 and Lexington air traffic controllers anticipated that the ill-fated plane would take off from Runway 22, a 7,000-foot strip made for airliners, investigators said Monday.

"The tower tapes confirm . . . that the discussions were about a takeoff on Runway 22," National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said in a midday briefing.

But the pilots of the "Delta Connection" jet instead taxied in pre-dawn darkness onto a nearby 3,500-foot strip, Runway 26, and tried to take off. Their plane apparently was unable to gain enough speed for normal flight and crashed in a field off the end of the runway.

Lights on Runway 26 weren't working at the time, Hersman said, deepening the mystery of why the pilots used the shorter strip.

She said the NTSB will look into several possible factors in the pilots' use of the shorter strip, including how recent runway work affected signage and lighting, and how much rest the crew got before their early morning departure.

"There's nothing on the air traffic control tapes about Runway 26," Hersman said. "All communication on the air traffic control and cockpit voice recorder tapes reference Runway 22."

A fully loaded 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet requires about 4,000 feet of runway to get off the ground, and operating rules require at least 5,000 feet.

All 47 passengers and two of three crew members died on impact or in a fierce fire after the crash. The lone survivor, co-pilot James Polehinke, was rescued from the smoldering jet by law enforcement officials who were unable to save anyone else. He remained in critical condition Monday.

Hersman said NTSB investigators should have more detailed information at the next briefing Monday evening.

She said they have been able to determine that the CRJ100's two jet engines "appear to be in good working order at the time of the accident."

Hersman said a group of officials will retrace Flight 5191's path to Runway 26 early Tuesday.

"We're trying to simulate conditions as they were (Sunday) at 6 a.m." Hersman said. "We'll try to see what the pilots saw."

They'll also be looking into the crew's communication with the tower controller, as well as at the pilots' schedule and rest.

Comair and NTSB officials declined to say when the jet or the crew arrived in Lexington the night before. But Comair's schedule shows a 10 p.m. arrival followed by a 6:10 a.m. departure to Atlanta. Industry officials say such overnight turnarounds are standard among regional airline, with crews technically on duty throughout the night and flying with only a few hours of sleep.

"The history of the crew and the amount of rest they got will be part of the investigation," Hersman said.

Several airline flights left Lexington about the time of the accident. Weather was clear with about seven miles visibility and clouds about 5,000 feet above the ground.

Only one controller on duty

There was only one air traffic controller on duty in the Lexington tower, and that person had to coordinate arrivals, departures, ground movements and make weather reports. Air traffic controllers are responsible for ensuring pilots are given the correct clearances and read them back properly -- but they aren't required to watch each plane to make sure they comply with instructions.

Despite the lack of lighting on Runway 26, the airport layout shows how confusion could occur.

The thresholds of both runways are quite close, and recent taxiway work altered the path to the long runway. Instead of following the taxiway to the end to join the long runway, the new layout requires pilots to cross the Runway 26 threshold, then continue on a dog-leg turn to Runway 22.

Also, under the powerful landing lights of a jet, the reflective paint on the unlit Runway appears bright, and intersecting runway lights beyond give it the illusion of being lighted.

Daniel Kaberle, a flight instructor at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, said he's unaware, however, of other pilots mistaking the two runways.

"I've never seen it happen," he said. "This is the first time I'm aware of."

The job of cleaning up the wreckage from the crash will go to a Griffin-based salvage firm, the company said.

Air Atlanta Recovery got word Monday after being contacted by the NTSB on Sunday, said Todd Thaxton, a recovery specialist supervisor at the firm.

Staff writer S.A. Reid contributed to this report.