Only One Air Traffic Controller was On Duty Before Crash

Louisville Courier-Journal
January 25, 2007
By Mark Pitsch, James R. Carrol and Tom Loftus

The Federal Aviation Administration violated its policy by having only one Lexington air traffic controller on duty to direct Comair Flight 5191 before it crashed, an official said yesterday.

The controller at Blue Grass Airport was performing two jobs Sunday when he cleared the jet for takeoff.

He told investigators he wasn't watching as the plane mistakenly left on a runway that was too short for the plane's size and weight, an official said.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to say whether the lack of two controllers might have played a role in the crash, which killed 49 of the 50 people aboard. She said the tower now will have two controllers at all times.

When officials learned after the crash that the policy hadn't been followed, "they directed the facility manager to ensure that a minimum of two controllers are on duty at all times -- one for radar operations and one for surface operations," Brown told The Courier-Journal.

Also yesterday, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation said:

The controller cleared the plane for takeoff but was performing administrative duties and did not watch it.

The controller told investigators the pilot was not disoriented or confused, although the crew initially boarded the wrong plane.

Comair crew members had not flown at the airport since it changed the path that they should have taken to get to the appropriate runway.

The regional jet was trying to get airborne about 6:10 a.m. before it sheared off a fence and trees and crashed.

Relatives are scheduled to visit the crash scene today for a private tour and then attend a private memorial.

Policy Broken

Since Nov. 16, 2005, the FAA has required two controllers in all towers on all shifts, Brown said.

A Nov. 16 document from the Lexington tower's air traffic manager, obtained by The Courier-Journal, says that "our staffing rarely allows for a second controller to be assigned to the midshift," or the midnight shift.

The manager wrote that the FAA was "requiring that facilities separate the radar function from the tower function."

The radar function involves controlling the landing and departure of planes out to about 40 miles from the tower.

The tower function focuses on controlling ground traffic at the airport, including airport vehicles, providing clearances to aircraft to taxi, and giving updated weather data to flight crews.

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the union has pushed for a minimum of two controllers since 1993 because one is not safe.

"You have to have that redundancy," Church said. "What if you have to go to the bathroom? What if you get sick? What if an accident happens and you need somebody to relieve you?"

The Blue Grass tower has 19 controllers assigned to it to cover all shifts -- 17 experienced controllers and two trainees, Church said.

Mike Overly, editor of AVSIG.com, an online aviation safety forum hosted by the Aviation Safety Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Worthington, Ohio, said tower staffing may be a factor in the accident, but not the only one.

Overly agreed that having two controllers makes operations safer.

"A lot of guys have their heads down on their computers. ... Having somebody who can look out the window is good," he said.

Kathleen Bergen, external communications manager for the FAA's Southern Region, said the airport had two controllers on duty on weekend overnight shifts until four or five months ago, when air traffic dropped to the point where only one was needed.

Controller Didn't Watch Takeoff

Yesterday, National Transportation Safety Board investigators interviewed the controller who was on duty Sunday morning.

The controller said he had a "clear, unobstructed" view of the runway, said Debbie Hersman, an NTSB member.

He told investigators that he cleared the flight for takeoff on Runway 22, the longer runway, and then turned his back to perform administrative duties as the plane taxied, Hersman said.

"He said the last time he saw the aircraft was on the taxiway on the way to the runway," Hersman said.

He then heard an explosion, she said. "At that point he realized there was an accident," she said.

Asked if the controller should have watched the aircraft take off, Hersman said, "The decisions about what needs to be done and what needs to be changed, that's all a part of the NTSB analysis."

The FAA's Bergen said the FAA would not comment on that question.

Robert Spragg, a former Marine Corps pilot and a New York lawyer who specializes in aviation accident litigation, said the FAA's Air Traffic Control Manual says a controller shall visually scan the runways "to the maximum extent possible."

"That gives a loophole for a controller to tend to other things commanding his attention," Spragg said.

He said it is unclear whether a second controller would have mattered. "What should shed a lot of light on that will be the transcript of the conversation between the tower and the pilots," Spragg said.

Hersman said she couldn't describe the controller's work history over the previous 24 hours.

Bergen declined to say how many hours the controller had worked before the crash. She said the FAA will not release the name of the controller.

Got On Wrong Plane

Hersman said the crew "rolled through their taxi to their takeoff." That means the plane began takeoff as soon as it completed the turn from the taxiway to the runway, rather than stopping.

The controller also said the pilot didn't seem confused or disoriented.

But Hersman said the crew originally boarded the wrong plane and began preparations after checking in and picking up paperwork at 5:15 a.m. Sunday.

A Comair ramp worker told the crew that they were on the wrong plane, so they switched, she said.

She said co-pilot James Polehinke was to be in control of the plane after it was lined up on the runway, but pilot Jeffrey Clay steered the jet down the taxiway to Runway 26.

Hersman provided no new information on why the crew took the plane to the shorter runway.

Crew's Experience

The pilot and co-pilot had not used Blue Grass Airport since it changed the route the Comair jet would have had to take to get to the longer runway earlier this month.

Clay, 35, had been at the airport six times in the last two years, most recently in June, Hersman said.

He had 4,700 total hours flying, and 3,000 in a regional jet, including 1,567 as the pilot in command. He arrived in Lexington at 3:30 p.m. Saturday as a passenger on another aircraft, Hersman said.

Polehinke, 44, had been at the airport 10 times in the last two years, most recently in May, she said.

He had 5,424 total hours flying, including 3,564 as a co-pilot in a regional jet. He arrived at 2 a.m. Saturday as a crew member on a flight originating in New York.

Investigators are trying to reconstruct the crew's work and leisure time during the 72 hours before the accident.