August 29, 2006
By Mike M. Ahlers

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday acknowledged that only one controller was in the tower, in violation of FAA policy, when a Comair jet crashed Sunday while trying to take off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky.

Forty-nine of 50 people aboard were killed.

The acknowledgment came after CNN obtained a November 2005 FAA memorandum spelling out staffing levels at the airport. The memo says two controllers are needed to perform two jobs -- monitoring air traffic on radar and performing other tower functions, such as communicating with taxiing aircraft.

In instances when two controllers are not available, the memo says, the radar monitoring function should be handed off to the FAA's Indianapolis Center.

The FAA confirmed to CNN on Tuesday that the lone controller was performing both functions Sunday at Blue Grass Airport in violation of the FAA policy.

The FAA should have scheduled a second controller for the overnight shift or should have shifted radar responsibilities to Indianapolis Center, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

According to the FAA, the agency implemented the policy last year after a near in-air collision at Raleigh/Durham International Airport. At the time, only one controller was staffing the tower, sources told CNN.

After the incident, an FAA administrator ordered that the radar and tower functions be separated.

Comair Flight 5191, a Bombardier CRJ-200, crashed while trying to take off Sunday morning. The National Transportation Safety Board said the controller cleared the plane to take off from Runway 22, but the plane began its takeoff roll on Runway 26, a much shorter runway.

Pilots are required to read back take-off clearances, which include the runway to be used, to controllers.

Tire marks indicate the plane's wheels went into grass beyond the end of the runway. It became airborne after hitting an earthen berm, clipped a perimeter fence and hit a stand of trees before hitting the ground, said Debbie Hersman, who is heading up the NTSB's investigation.

The crash killed all 47 passengers and two of the three crew members onboard. The plane's first officer survived, but with critical injuries.

See the November 16, 2005 FAA Memo regarding Blue Grass Airport Staffing