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A view down the 3,500-foot-long general aviation runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., looks towards the site of a plane crash
By Al Behrman, AP
A view down the 3,500-foot-long general aviation runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., looks towards the site of a plane crash
Error in Comair crash fairly common
The pilots of Comair Flight 5191, who tried to take off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., early Sunday, were repeating a common error, according to government databases and aviation experts.

The CRJ-100 burst into flames and 49 of the 50 people died after the jet sped off a short runway reserved for small private planes. Jets are supposed to use a nearby 7,003-foot runway that is twice the length of the smaller one.

Pilots report that in some cases it is easy to mistake one runway for another, especially at night or in poor weather. Aviation incident databases include hundreds of cases of pilots attempting to land or take off on the wrong runways.

Most often such mistakes are caught well before an accident occurs. In rare instances they have caused accidents. And the related risk of planes that stray into the paths of other planes on runways is considered one of the top aviation risks in the country.

AIRCRAFT SAFETY: Small, regional jets among the safest

"It's not the first time it's happened," said John Cox, a retired airline pilot who now works as a safety consultant.

On Oct. 31 in Taiwan, a Singapore Airlines jet tried to take off on a runway closed for construction. The jet broke apart after hitting construction equipment, killing 82 of the 179 people aboard.

The pilots of a small jet said that in November 1993 they nearly tried to take off on the same runway in Lexington where the accident occurred, according to a NASA report.

The pilots realized their mistake as an air traffic controller radioed a warning, the report said. The NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System does not identify the airline.

In many instances, jets traveling down the wrong runway are still able to take off.

"There are a lot (of planes) that actually do make wrong-runway takeoffs and just make it," says John Purvis, former chief accident investigator for Boeing.

"Black box" data

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Sunday evening that preliminary data from the jet's two "black box" recorders indicated that the pilots had attempted to take off from runway 26.

They had apparently been instructed by a controller to take off from runway 22, which is nearby. NTSB board member Debbie Hersman said the only instructions the pilots received were for the longer runway.

The route to the proper runway would have taken the pilots directly past the shorter strip. That runway, which the airport describes as narrow and "severely cracked," is 3,500 feet long. That is too short for a CRJ-100 to gather enough speed to lift off, according to Bombardier, the jet's manufacturer.

The jet knocked out an airport fence, skimmed over the adjacent rolling fields and broke apart. Jet fuel from the plane's wings touched off an intense blaze, which caused most of the fatalities, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said.

NTSB investigators will take at least a year to determine what happened in the darkness at Blue Grass Airport. They will examine such issues as the amount of rest the pilots got the night before, the communication between the controller and the pilots, the runway markings and the airport lighting.

Recent problems with runway lights at the airport could have caused confusion. The smaller runway is not supposed to be lit at night, according to an airport guide. Normally, the longer runway's bright lights would make it easily distinguishable from the smaller runway.

However, most of the lights on the longer of the two runways had been inoperable until early Saturday and pilots had been notified of the outage, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Brown declined to comment on the accident.

Capt. Terry McVenes, safety chief with the Air Line Pilots Association, said his union has long called for better signs and lights to help pilots avoid making wrong turns. "We think it's very important," said McVenes. "For $8 a gallon for paint, you can solve a lot of problems."

Similar incidents

A USA TODAY review of accidents and incidents in NTSB, FAA and NASA databases found hundreds of cases of pilots trying to take off or land on improper runways since the 1980s.

Among the examples:

• On Jan. 25, 2002, a China Airlines Airbus A-340 took off from a taxiway in Anchorage. The pilots averted tragedy by lifting off nearly 1,000 feet sooner than normal. The jet's tires struck a snow bank at the end of the taxiway, but the plane was not damaged.

• On Nov. 22, 1994, two people in a small charter plane were killed when they struck a TWA Boeing MD-80 on a runway at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The NTSB found that the pilots of the small plane had attempted to take off on the wrong runway. The crash prompted changes in the way controllers and pilots communicate about runways.

• On Dec. 23, 1995, a Delta MD-80 took off from the wrong runway at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. "Investigation has revealed a number of wrong runway departures" in Cleveland, an FAA report said. Cleveland has since redesigned that area of the airport.

• In January and March 1989, two airline jets took off from the same closed runway at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport. In both cases the jets struck construction equipment but did not crash.

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Probe aims to find reason why plane took wrong runway

Jeffrey McMurray, Canadian Press

Published: Monday, August 28, 2006
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Investigators probing the fiery crash of Comair Flight 5191 want to know why it tried to take off from a runway considered far too short for commercial passenger planes. All but one of the 50 people aboard died Sunday.

Foreign Affairs in Ottawa confirmed that two Canadians were among the dead but has not released identities.

Although Blue Grass Airport’s main runway is about 2,135 metres, for some reason the plane departed from the 1,066-metre general aviation runway. The Canadian-built twin-engine CRJ-100 would have needed 1,525 metres to fully get off the ground, aviation experts said.

There also were clues for the pilot: signs marking the right way; less lighting on the shorter runway, and severely cracked concrete - not the type of surface typically found on runways for commercial routes.

“We will be taking a look at the weight of the aircraft, the runway available and where they should have been,” National Transportation Safety Board member Deborah Hersman said Monday on NBC’s Today show. “We certainly are going to be looking at how to prevent something like this from occurring in the future.”

Bombardier Aerospace will send product safety and technical experts to the scene of the crash to assist the NTSB investigation, a company spokesman in Montreal said Sunday.

“It’s an unfortunate, tragic event but certainly the aircraft has a very good, I’d say exceptional, safety record,” said Bert Cruickshank.

Amid the devastation and lost lives, there was one story of heroism: police officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and burned his arms as he pulled out James Polehinke, the plane’s first officer. Polehinke, the only survivor, was listed in critical condition at University of Kentucky Hospital.

A light rain was falling Sunday when the plane taxied away from the main runway, which had been repaved last week. The Atlanta-bound plane plowed through a perimeter fence and crashed in a field about a kilometre from the shorter runway.

It’s rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but “sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one,” said Saint Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz.

The crash marks 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 neighbourhood in New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

Aerial images of the latest crash site in the rolling hills of Kentucky’s horse country showed trees damaged at the end of the short runway and the nose of the plane almost parallel to the small strip.

When rescuers reached it, the plane was largely intact but in flames.

“They were taking off, so I’m sure they had a lot of fuel on board,” Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. “Most of the injuries are going to be due to fire-related deaths.”
Those killed included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, and a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children.

The crew members who died were Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired by Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair in 1999, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004. Polehinke has been with Comair since 2002.

The plane had undergone routine maintenance as recently as Saturday and had 14,500 flight hours, “consistent with aircraft of that age,” Comair president Don Bornhorst said.
Investigators from the FAA and NTSB were at the scene, and Bornhorst said the airline was working to contact relatives of the passengers.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, in Germany for the World Equestrian Games and an economic development trip, was to return to Kentucky on Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said.

Jon Hooker, a former minor-league baseball player, and Scarlett Parsley had wed the night before the crash in a fairy-tale ceremony complete with a horse-drawn carriage and 300 friends.

“It’s so tragic because he was so happy last night,” said Keith Madison, who coached Hooker’s baseball team at the University of Kentucky and attended the wedding. “It’s just an incredible turn of events. It’s really painful.”

Pat Smith, a member of Habitat for Humanity International’s Board of Directors, died on his way to Gulfport, Miss., to work on rebuilding houses, Habitat spokesman Duane Bates said.

Another passenger, Charles Lykins of Naples, Fla., caught an early flight Sunday so he could get home to his two young children after visiting friends and family in the Lexington area, said friend Paul Richardson.

© Canadian Press

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