Lexington Taxi Route Changed

Updated: 4:34 p.m. ET Aug. 28, 2006

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The taxi route for commercial jets at Blue Grass Airport was altered a week before Comair Flight 5191 took the wrong runway and crashed, killing all but one of the 50 people aboard, the airport’s director said Monday.

Both the old and new taxiways to reach the main commercial runway cross over the shorter general aviation runway, where the commuter jet tried to take off early Sunday, Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb told The Associated Press.

While the main strip, Runway 22, is 7,000 feet long, the shorter one, Runway 26, is just 3,500 feet. Aviation experts say the CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground.

The runway repaving was completed late on the previous Sunday, one week before the crash, Gobb said.

It wasn’t clear if the Comair pilots aboard Flight 5191 had been to the airport since the changes. Comair operates that regular 6 a.m. Sunday flight to Atlanta from Lexington, but another commuter airline takes over the early morning commute during the week.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and said it was reviewing runway and taxiway markings as part of its investigation.

Uneventful conversations
Recorded conversations between Comair Flight 5191’s cockpit crew and the single person staffing the control tower in the minutes before Sunday’s crash showed no signs of trouble. The only runway mentioned was the main commercial strip, Runway 22, said NTSB member Debbie Hersman.

Somehow, the commuter jet ended up on Runway 26 instead — a cracked surface meant for small planes that was much too short for Comair’s twin-engine jet.

What followed was the worst U.S. plane disaster since 2001.

“The take-off began, and the aircraft continued to accelerate until the recording stopped,” Hersman said.

The plane clipped trees, then quickly crashed in a field and burst into flames, killing everyone aboard but a critically injured co-pilot who was pulled from the cracked cockpit.

Preflight ‘consistent’ with regular practice
Information retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder indicated that the preflight preparations had been “consistent with normal operations,” Hersman said Monday.

There were no obvious problem with the airworthiness of the plane and the engines were in tact and appeared to have been in good working order, she said.

Recovery Process Continues At Comair Crash Site
Jamie Rhodes / Getty Images
A small plane lands on runway 22 at Lexington, Ky., Blue Grass Airport on Monday as National Transportation Safety Board investigators, in the structure behind the runway, sift for clues surrounding the crash site of Comair Flight 5191.

“Air traffic control and the flight crew planned for a takeoff from runway 22,” Hersman said. But “The F.D.R. (flight data recorder) and the evidence on scene indicates the crew took off from Runway 26.”  

Lowell Wiley, a flight instructor who flies almost daily from Lexington, said he was confused by the redirected taxi route when he was with a student taking off from the main runway Friday.

Pilots encountered problems with the runway layout at Lexington’s airport in the past, as well.

In a letter filed in 1993 with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a pilot described his experience:

“Aircraft was cleared for immediate takeoff (traffic was inside the marker) on runway 22 at KLEX. We taxied onto the runway and told tower we needed a moment to check our departure routing with our weather radar (storms were in the area, raining at the airport). We realized our heading was not correct for our assigned runway and at that moment, tower called us to cancel the takeoff clearance because we were lined up on runway 26.”

Pilot suggested warning
The pilot, who is not identified, suggested the Lexington airport post a warning to pilots “to clarify multiple runway ends,” according to a text of the letter provided by FlightAware.com.

Hersman said the NTSB was interviewing the controller on duty early Sunday, reviewing records and transcribing the data and voice recorders retrieved from the crash.

Monday afternoon, investigators planned to use a high-riding truck to try to get the same view of the runway and airport layout that the pilots of Comair Flight 5191 would have had, she said.

She said they planned to conduct the same test on Tuesday at 6 a.m., the time of the crash to “try to see what the pilot saw.”

The plane’s two pilots were familiar with the twin-engine CRJ-100, and that plane in particular, the plane’s maintenance was up to date, and it wasn’t an old aircraft, Comair President Don Bornhorst said. Comair, based in Erlanger, Ky., is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc.

“We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident,” Bornhorst said Sunday.  

At Blue Grass Airport, flights were back to normal Monday. The 6 a.m. Lexington-to-Atlanta flight took off safely, though with a different flight number, Delta 6107.

“Obviously there is some anxiety when something like this happens, but it is not something that would stop me from going,” said Mark Carroll, 47, a computer consultant from Lexington who was boarding the flight to Atlanta. “Things happen when you get older, it happens to everyone. You keep doing what you’re doing.”

The wreckage of Flight 5191 remained largely intact but severely burned in a field about a mile away.

The burned bodies of the 49 victims were removed from the plane on Sunday and taken to the state Medical Examiner’s Office in Frankfort for autopsies to determine the cause of death. Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said Sunday that they likely died in the fire.

The passengers
The victims included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, an owner of a thoroughbred horse farm, a University of Kentucky official and a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children.

Amid the devastation, there was also a story of heroism: Police Officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and pulled out James M. Polehinke, the plane’s first officer, burning his own arms to save the man. Polehinke was listed in critical condition at University of Kentucky Hospital.

The crash marked the end of what has been called the “safest period in aviation history” in the United States. There has not been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

from this link

NTSB: Wrong runway wasn't Comair crew's only preflight error

LEXINGTON, Kentucky (CNN) -- As Comair Flight 5191 began rolling down the wrong runway, the lone air traffic controller

 on duty at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport was busy with paperwork. And the 47 passengers onboard were unaware that the flight crew had started that Sunday morning by mistakenly getting onto another plane.

Seconds later, the commuter jet crashed, killing everyone onboard except the co-pilot, who remains in critical condition at a Lexington hospital.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday acknowledged that only one controller was in the tower, in violation of the agency's policy, when the Comair jet crashed.

The revelation came after CNN obtained a November 2005 FAA memorandum spelling out staffing levels at the airport. The memo says two controllers are needed -- one to monitor air traffic on radar and another to perform other tower functions, such as communicating with taxiing aircraft. (Text of the memo -- PDF)

When two controllers are not available, the memo says, the radar monitoring function should be handed off to the FAA center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The FAA told CNN that the lone controller at Blue Grass was performing both functions Sunday in violation of the policy.

The controller's last look at the Comair CRJ-100 occurred when it was on the taxiway, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

"He had cleared the aircraft for takeoff, and he turned his back and performed administrative duties in the tower," said Debbie Hersman, the NTSB member in charge of the investigation.

She said the controller cleared Flight 5191 to take off on Runway 22, the 7,000-foot lighted runway used by commercial jets.

Instead, the crew tried to take off on the unlit Runway 26, which was about half as long. (Airport layout)

The controller told the NTSB he had an unobstructed view of both runways, Hersman said, but because he was not looking in that direction, he was unaware of a problem until he heard the crash.

Air traffic controllers are not responsible for making sure pilots are on the right runway, John Nance, a pilot and aviation analyst, told The Associated Press. "You clear him for takeoff and that's the end of it,"  Nance said, according to the AP.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that in 1993 a plane mistakenly lined up on Runway 26 instead of Runway 22, but the tower noticed the error in time.

Turning onto the wrong runway was not the only mistake the crew made Sunday, according to the NTSB. When they arrived at the airport at 5:15 a.m., the captain and first officer boarded the wrong plane and turned on the power before a ramp worker pointed out their mistake.

Hersman said it was the flight's captain, Jeffrey Clay, who taxied the aircraft into position at the start of the wrong runway. Clay then turned over the controls to the co-pilot, James Polehinke, who was flying the plane when it crashed. Hersman said that was standard procedure since only the captain can reach the tiller used to steer the plane while it's on the ground.

Hersman said both crew members were familiar with the Lexington airport but that neither had been to the airport since a repaving project a week earlier altered the taxiway route.

She said investigators will continue to gather information on how the pilot and co-pilot spent the 72 hours before the flight. She said toxicology testing for alcohol and drugs is routine.

Staffing boosted after crash
Andrew Cantwell, regional vice president of the controller's union, said he could not say with certainty whether additional staffing would have prevented the crash, but a second person would have allowed the controller to focus on operations.

In a statement Tuesday, the FAA suggested that a second controller would not have prevented the accident.

"Had there been a second controller present on Sunday, that controller would have been responsible for separating airborne traffic with radar, not aircraft on the airport's runways," the statement said.

The FAA this week increased overnight staffing at Lexington as well as at airports in Duluth, Minnesota, and Savannah, Georgia, Cantwell said.

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said there has been a net loss of 1,081 controllers in the last three years, due largely to a wave of retirements, the AP reported.

Tire marks indicate the plane's wheels went into grass beyond the end of the runway. It became airborne after hitting an earthen berm, clipped a perimeter fence and struck a stand of trees before hitting the ground, said Hersman. (

A longtime pilot familiar with Blue Grass Airport told the Lexington newspaper that the airport is confusing and getting onto the wrong runway is easier than it sounds.

Russ Whitney told the paper that Runway 22, the one Flight 5191 should have been on, has a hump in the middle, so pilots cannot see the whole thing as they begin takeoff. Runway 22 and the much shorter Runway 26 can appear to be the same length, he said, according to the newspaper.

On Wednesday, victims' families were scheduled to tour the crash site before a memorial service, the AP reported.
from this link