49 killed in commuter jet crash

Co-pilot is only survivor

plane used wrong runway

August 28, 2006|By Charles Sheehan and Jon Hilkevitch | Charles Sheehan and Jon Hilkevitch,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Comair commuter jet that crashed yesterday only seconds after taking off on the wrong runway in Kentucky never had a chance to attain the speed required to stay in the air, according to aviation experts.

The experts questioned how the pilots committed the fatal mistake - which started with making a wrong turn onto a shorter runway - and then failed to catch it through a series of checks that are supposed to take place before takeoff.

The crash was the deadliest U.S. commercial airline crash in nearly five years.

Forty-nine of the 50 people on board the plane were killed when the regional jet smashed into a hilltop after the pilots used a runway half the length of the intended runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, authorities said. The co-pilot, the only survivor on the Atlanta-bound flight, was reported in critical condition last night after surgery.

Many of the crash victims might have survived the impact, but a fast-moving fire scorched the fuselage, said Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn.

"From what I can see and where the bodies were placed, there was some reaction" among passengers to possibly try to evacuate, he said.

The 50-seat CRJ-100 required a runway length of at least 5,250 feet to achieve the takeoff speed needed to carry its full load of 46 passengers, two pilots, a flight attendant and an off-duty pilot who was riding in a fold-down "jump" seat, according to Bombardier, the airplane manufacturer.

But Comair Flight 5191 took off from Runway 26, a 3,500-foot runway intended only for small general aviation planes, instead of on Runway 22, which is the 7,003- foot runway reserved for commercial aircraft, according to Deborah Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The plane struck an airport perimeter fence while struggling to climb and crashed less than a mile from the airport, Hersman said. She said wreckage was spread over a large area.

"We have ground scars at the end of [Runway] 26," she said.

Information taken from the twin-engine plane's flight data recorder, or "black box," confirmed that the plane was lined up on the shorter runway, Hersman said.

A preliminary review of radio tapes in the crash indicated that the air traffic controller on duty cleared the Comair pilots to taxi and take off from the longer runway, Hersman said.

The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder were sent to the safety board's laboratory in Washington for analysis, officials said.

Officials planned to interview the controller. They would not disclose what the controller might have seen from the airport tower, or what he or she was doing when the plane departed.

But the pilot in command, once given taxi and takeoff instructions, is responsible for safe operations.

The plane's captain was identified as Jeffrey Clay, 35, who joined Comair in November 1999.

The co-pilot, James Polehinke, 44, was pulled from the burning wreckage by a Lexington police officer and two airport security guards, officials said.

The flames kept rescuers from reaching anyone else aboard - among them, a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children and a University of Kentucky official.

Some of the bodies of victims were unaccounted for last night. A search was scheduled to resume this morning, officials said.

While what is expected to be a yearlong crash inquiry has just begun, authorities said it is clear that the five-year-old Comair plane never generated the necessary ground speed on the short runway to maintain its acceleration in the air.

A key focus will be on how the two pilots, the off-duty pilot riding with them and the controller in the airport tower failed to intervene after the wrong turn was made onto Runway 26, experts said.

"We're still working on determining what was going on in the cockpit and what information was discussed between air traffic controllers and the pilot," Hersman said.

The radio tapes will be critical to assess whether the pilots followed their preflight checklist and conducted themselves properly by limiting conversation to flight-related business.

"I've always questioned whether airlines should be allowing people to ride in the jump seat. I've always felt that two people in the cockpit was safe, while three was a distraction," said Aaron Gellman, an aviation safety expert at Northwestern University.

Blue Grass Airport is an uncomplicated airfield with only the two runways. The same taxiway is used to shuttle between the passenger terminal building and the ends of the two runways on the east side of the airport. Airline pilots taxiing to Runway 22 must cross the tip of Runway 26 while en route.

Investigators are expected to focus on whether the proximity of the ends of the runways factored into the apparent confusion in yesterday's crash.

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