COMAIR PILOT: "WEIRD" RUNWAY HAD NO LIGHTS

Louisville Courier-Journal
January 17, 2007
By James R. Carroll

WASHINGTON - The copilot of Comair Flight 5191 said it was "weird" a Lexington airport runway lacked lights, moments before the jet crashed killing 49 of 50 people aboard, according to a transcript released Wednesday.

"Dat is weird with no lights," copilot James Polehinke said at 6:06:16 a.m., according to the transcript released by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Whoa," replied the pilot, Jeffrey Clay, at 6:06:31 a.m.

The sound of impact is less than two seconds later.

About three minutes before the crash, Clay and Polehinke were talking about flight training, a dog, family matters and other issues not related to takeoff, according to the transcript.

The air traffic controller at Blue Grass Airport directed them to taxi to Runway 22, which is the runway designed for such a large plane.

Neither Clay and Polehinke acknowledge to the controller that they were steering the jet to Runway 22.

Investigators have determined that the jet took off from the airport's shorter, 3,500-foot runway, which is not designed to handle a plane of that size and weight. The jet was supposed to use the 7,000-foot runway.

A week before the crash, the airport did some paving and changed the taxiway to the longer runway.

The transcript is among the investigative files on the Aug. 27 jet crash in Lexington that were released Wednesday.

The tape of the conversation between the Blue Grass Airport tower and the cockpit crew of Comair Flight 5191 also is scheduled for release by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Neither agency plans to comment on the documents and the tape.

The early-morning accident, which killed 49 of the 50 people aboard, still is under investigation by the NTSB.

The accident raised issues about proper airport signage and whether the control tower was adequately staffed.

In November, an FAA review of airport signs and markings found that Blue Grass complied with federal standards.

But the FAA admitted shortly after the crash that it violated its own policy by having only one controller instead of two on the midnight shift in Lexington.

Nearly five months before the crash, an air traffic controller told Kentucky's senators that the airport's midnight shift had two in the tower "only when convenient to management."

"This is the FAA playing a scary game of politics and using safety as the trump card," Faron Collins, then the vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Lexington, wrote lawmakers on April 4, 2006.

The Lexington accident also brought new congressional and media attention to controller staffing nationwide.

Nearly 1,100 fewer air traffic controllers are guiding planes now than three years ago, even though flights are increasing, according to a project published in December by The Courier-Journal and Gannett News Service.

The controllers' union contends that some facilities are critically understaffed, causing flight delays and increasing the chances that overworked controllers could cause a fatal mistake.

The controller force also is facing a wave of retirements. The number of controllers choosing to retire has exceeded FAA projections three years in a row, The Courier-Journal and Gannett found. That is putting more of the workload on less-seasoned controllers and trainees.

FAA has said that a second controller at Lexington would not have made a difference in the Lexington accident because that controller would have been looking at radar, not the airport runways.

The agency also says that most of the nation's air traffic control facilities are adequately staffed and that it has a plan to deal with the retirements.
Comair in October sued the airport and FAA, saying both made mistakes that led to confusion by the Comair pilots.

Blue Grass Airport in December sued Comair, saying negligence and wrongful conduct by the airline and the flight crew were the only cause of the crash.