Before it Crashed, Killing 49, Flight 5191 Had Been Heading Down the Wrong Stretch. Analysis of the Scene and the Data Recorder is Underway.

Los Angeles Times
August 29, 2006
By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In the moments before the crash of Comair Flight 5191, the pilots and the lone air traffic controller on duty discussed using only one runway — the one with the generous, 7,000-foot stretch that would have allowed for a safe takeoff.

That fact, culled from cockpit and control tower recordings and revealed Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board, has only deepened the mystery surrounding the crash: What was the source of the confusion that sent the plane on a fatal course down a shorter runway it was never meant to be on?

On Monday, dozens of investigators descended on Lexington's Blue Grass Airport and the gruesome field of debris nearby, gathering clues that could eventually answer that question. As they worked through bouts of driving rain, other investigators in Washington began analyzing 32 minutes of cockpit voice recordings and information stored in the flight's data recorder recovered from the crash, which killed 49 of the 50 people on board.

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, announced Monday that it would restore a second air traffic controller to the midnight-to-8 a.m. weekend shift in an apparent attempt to ease concern over having only one controller in the tower during the crash.

The tower had had two controllers on this shift until four or five months ago, when traffic "dropped significantly" during those times, said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman.

"Several hours often go by and no planes go in and out of the airport," Bergen said.

An official cause of the crash is unlikely to come anytime soon from federal officials. "We don't perform an analysis while we're on scene," NTSB member Debbie Hersman said. "We're here to gather facts."

In a late evening news conference, Hersman gave more details of the moments before the crash:

•  As the plane was headed toward takeoff, the crew remarked that it was odd that there were no runway lights.

•  A witness who worked at the airport saw the plane take off in the dark from the shorter, unlighted runway, which is only used in the daytime by small general aviation aircraft. The main runway, meanwhile, was lighted.

•  The plane's weight, including passengers and freight, was just over 49,000 pounds. At that weight, the manufacturer estimated that the pilot would need 3,539 feet to begin the process of taking off. The runway is 3,500 feet long.

•  Just beyond the runway, investigators found three tire marks in the grass that corresponded with the tires under the nose and the wings. After leaving the runway, the plane hit an earthen berm, then crashed through a fence and into a stand of trees.

•  The first officer, 44-year-old James Polehinke — the only survivor — was flying the plane. He remained in critical condition Monday at University of Kentucky Hospital, a spokesman said.

Confusion over runway assignments occurs occasionally at airports, sometimes with disastrous results. But some pilots and air experts were amazed that this kind of mix-up could have occurred at Blue Grass, which has just two runways to handle the modest air traffic in Kentucky's second-largest city.

"I just can't imagine this situation in Lexington, because nobody's in any kind of hurry — there's nothing going on," said John Greaves, a Southern California lawyer and former pilot who flew into Lexington for Comair in the 1980s.

The 6 a.m. flight took off on what had been a typical Sunday morning for the airport: Only two other flights had taken off since 5 a.m.

The pilots that morning would confront some minor changes to the airport's runway and taxiing area. To comply with FAA regulations, the airport had repaved the 7,000-foot runway the weekend before, closing it for 48 hours.

When the airport reopened Aug. 20, all of the necessary lights and markers used to navigate the runway area were in place, said Brian Ellestad, an airport spokesman. The one exception was some center-line lights that had not yet been installed on the main runway, he said.

Also, the route to the runway had been altered, forcing planes approaching from the terminal to take a new left turn to line up for takeoff there.

"But everything is marked," Ellestad said of the new configuration. "Everything's been approved by the FAA."