Hard look at air crash

Officials begin detailed investigation of commuter flight that took off from wrong runway

August 29, 2006|By Richard Fausset | 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 7,000-foot one that would have allowed for a safe takeoff.

That fact, drawn from cockpit and air tower recordings and revealed yesterday 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 its fatal course down a shorter runway that it was never meant to be on?

Yesterday, dozens of investigators descended on Lexington's Blue Grass Airport and the gruesome field of debris nearby, gathering clues. 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 announced yesterday 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 two controllers on that shift until four or five months ago, when traffic "dropped significantly" during the night, said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman.

An official cause of the crash is unlikely to come soon. Federal officials have vowed to meticulously review the evidence.

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

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. One air traffic controller had been assigned to the tower for the midnight-8 a.m. shift, in accordance with FAA guidelines.

In Lexington at those hours, "several hours often go by and no planes go in and out of the airport," Bergen said.

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 to all planes for a 48-hour period.

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.

In addition, the approach route to the 7,000-foot 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."

It is unclear whether the pilot, Jeffrey Clay, 35, and the first officer, James Polehinke, 44 - the only survivor of the crash - had flown other planes out of Lexington since the construction work. Nor is it clear how much experience they had in general at the airport. Officials for Comair refused to comment on this and other matters. So did officials at Delta, Comair's parent company.

Debbie Hersman, an NTSB member, said yesterday that investigators would look at the paving project and any subsequent changes to the airport layout. But it is only one of a number of issues the group plans to examine.

Investigators plan to roll a tall truck onto the runway, gauging the views of the area in weather similar to Sunday's - clear, but with a light rain. They will scrupulously map and study the scattered debris to determine how the plane broke apart.

The engines have been examined - they proved to be operating fine at the time of the crash, Hersman said.

Investigators also will study the actions of the air traffic controller to ensure that guidelines were followed. John Cox - a former airline pilot who runs the Washington-based air safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems - raised a point that could emerge as crucial in the inquiry:

Air traffic controllers, he said, are not required to visually check on a plane's status after it has been cleared to take off at a given runway.

Richard Fausset writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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