Taxiing pilots chatted before crash

Report on Comair accident in Aug. indicates safeguards ignored

January 18, 2007|By Ken Kaye and William E. Gibson | Ken Kaye and William E. Gibson,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

WASHINGTON -- There was some laughing, yawning and general ease in Comair Flight 5191's cockpit.

Capt. Jeffrey Clay of Burlington, Ky., and First Officer James M. Polehinke of Margate, Fla., gossiped about kids, dogs and fellow pilots while running through checklists.

But they didn't discuss problems they might encounter during the short taxi to their assigned runway. And it wasn't until they advanced the throttles for takeoff that they noticed it was strangely dark.

"[That] is weird with no lights," Polehinke, who was at the controls, commented.

"Yeah," Clay responded, as captured on the plane's cockpit voice recorder.

They allowed their CRJ-100 commuter jet to accelerate for eight seconds to more than 115 mph - on a runway with no lights in the pre-dawn darkness - before Clay knew something had gone horribly wrong.

"Whoa," he blurted.

A second later, at 6:06 a.m. on Aug. 27, the sounds of impact, cockpit alarms and the two pilots making unintelligible exclamations could be heard. The small jet, scheduled to fly from Lexington, Ky., to Atlanta, ran off the end of a 3,500-foot, unlit runway that was far too short, killing 49 people on board. Only Polehinke was spared.

These and other new details on how the jet came to line up on the wrong runway were released yesterday in a National Transportation Safety Board report.

While the safety board likely will take several months to determine a probable cause, the report revealed that the pilots committed errors.

Notably, they failed to conduct a taxi briefing, in which the pilots review any trouble spots on the airport grounds to ensure they reach the correct runway. This occurred despite the airport's alerting, through a radio recording, that construction could make navigating taxiways tricky.

Also, the Comair flight's pilots failed to double-check that their compass reading matched the direction of the runway. Because they were assigned to take off on the 7,000-foot Runway 22, their compass should have read about 220 degrees. Instead, they lined up on Runway 26, which has a compass reading of about 260 degrees.

On the other hand, the sole tower controller on duty that morning didn't see the plane roll onto the wrong runway or issue a warning, because he turned away from the window to perform an administrative duty, the report said.

Further, the pilots might have talked too much about matters that were nonessential to the flight, the deadliest American aviation disaster in five years.

The transcript "did reveal our flight crew did not follow Comair's general cockpit procedures," Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said. "It is unclear what role, if any, this played in the accident, so it would be premature to determine that."

In 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the "sterile cockpit rule" that forbids, among other things, extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing.

Polehinke was not available for comment yesterday. After having his left leg amputated, he has returned to South Florida to heal, his attorney, Bruce Brandon of Greensboro, N.C., said.

Air safety investigators examined whether the two pilots might have been tired, as fatigue is a factor in many accidents. A transcript of the cockpit conversation indicated that Polehinke was yawning.

Yet witnesses said the two pilots appeared to be wide awake when they checked into Comair's flight operations office at 5:15 a.m.

Jarrod Orr, the bellman at Radisson Plaza Lexington, where the pilots had stayed the night before, said he didn't see Clay or Polehinke do any yawning or stretching as he drove them to the airport.

However, there were hints that Clay, 35, and Polehinke, 44, were distracted. They initially boarded the wrong plane and started up its auxiliary power unit before ramp agents alerted them to the mistake.

After the accident, toxicology reports showed that neither pilot had alcohol or "major drugs of abuse" in his system.

Ken Kaye and William E. Gibson write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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