New York Times
August 28, 2006
By Christine Hauser

The flight and voice recorders from the Comair jet that crashed in Kentucky on Sunday, killing all but one of the 50 people aboard, show that the plane took off from a runway that was too short and was not lit, a safety official said today.

The official, Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said this morning that she could not explain why the plane used the short runway instead of the longer one it was assigned to use. More information from the cockpit voice recorder will be made available after it has been fully transcribed, she said.

Ms. Hersman, speaking at a televised news conference in Lexington, said that information from the voice recorder has allowed investigators to piece together part of the picture inside the plane minutes before it took off. Preflight preparations were normal, she said, and the crew did not note any problems affecting airworthiness.

But then discrepancies over planning and the eventual course of action emerged, according to the recorders.

"Air traffic control and the flight crew planned for a takeoff from Runway 22," Ms. Hersman said, referring to the longer of the two intersecting runways. She said that nothing on the recorders or plans indicate any reference to Runway 26, the shorter one. The lights on Runway 26 were "out of service" at the time, she said.

"The takeoff roll began" on Runway 26, Ms. Hersman said, "and the aircraft continued to accelerate until the recording stopped."

Asked if there was any indication of confusion or distraction, Ms. Hersman said that information from the voice recorder had not yet been fully transcribed.

There was one person in the control tower at the time, she said, which was consistent with normal operations at the airport.

Comair Flight 5191, with 47 passengers and 3 crew members aboard, crashed about 6:05 a.m. Sunday on farmland about a half-mile from Blue Grass Airport. It had taken off in hazy weather only moments before and was on its way to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, a flight that ordinarily takes just over an hour, Comair's president, Don Bornhorst, said on Sunday.

An initial examination of the flight recorders, known as black boxes, on Sunday indicated that the pilots of the plane, a Bombardier Canadair jet, used Runway 26, which is 3,500 feet long, much shorter than typically required for a fully loaded aircraft of that type. Commercial jets at Blue Grass Airport nearly always use Runway 22, which is twice as long.

The taxi route for commercial jets at Blue Grass Airport was altered a week before the Comair flight crashed on Sunday, the airport's director, Michael Gobb, told The Associated Press. Both the old and new taxiways cross over the shorter runway, and the runway repaving that changed the taxi route was completed late on the previous Sunday, Mr. Gobb told The A.P.

Ms. Hersman said that investigators today were sifting through the debris at the scene of the crash, inspecting the runways, going through records, and trying to simulate the lighting and conditions at the scene to "try to see what the pilot saw" at the time of the crash. The teams were looking at tree strikes, ground marks, and other points of evidence "from the runway all the way to final rest," she said.

Investigators are also looking into how much time off the crew had prior to the flight, and what they did while off duty, she said.

Though the wreckage of the aircraft shows signs of fire damage, the engines are intact, Ms. Hersman said, and they appeared to be in good working order before the accident.

The builder of the airplane and federal aviation officials differed on whether the plane was a CRJ-100 or a CRJ-200, a similar model. A plane of either type, depending on wind and other conditions, typically requires a runway at least 5,000 feet long to take off when loaded, aviation officials say.

Three people pulled the only survivor, James M. Polehinke, the co-pilot, from the wreckage on Sunday. He was still listed in critical condition today, according to the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

The pilot, Capt. Jeffrey Clay, began work with Comair in 1999 and was promoted two years ago to captain, Mr. Bornhorst said. The co-pilot, Mr. Polehinke, has worked for Comair since 2002.

The crash, one of the worst domestic airline accidents in recent years, was a blow to Comair's parent company, Delta Air Lines. Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last September and had been hoping to emerge again by next summer.

Comair, based in Cincinnati, has been battling with its 970 flight attendants over concessions the company is seeking as part of the restructuring. Airline officials have said that the company needs more than $7 million a year worth of concessions from its flight attendants, pilots and mechanics. A federal bankruptcy judge ruled last month that Comair could disregard its contract with the flight attendants.

Ian Urbina contributed reporting from Washington for this article and Amanda Van Benschoten from Lexington, Brenda Goodman from Atlanta, Sahar Habibi from New York and Stacy L. Neitzel and Matthew L. Wald from Lexington.